Energy and Enthusiasm Can Help You Earn Offers

A story in my local newspaper last year quoted the provost of a local college responding to why a dean left after only 14 months with this statement: “Paul took charge of issues well, but was low-key. We wanted a more public leader at this time.”

In my case, I didn’t lose a job due to being low-key. Rather, I wasn’t offered one. Low-key is defined in my dictionary as “lacking intensity or prominence; restrained,” but it also has several connotations — quiet, passive, reserved, retiring, unassertive.

Here’s my story, one that I regularly share with students in the job-readiness skills class that I teach.

Several years ago, I was being considered for a position with a small, nonprofit agency that works with teenagers, most of whom dropped out of high school or had minor brushes with the law. Among other activities, program participants were required to perform community work, obtain a G.E.D. if necessary and do calisthenics in the morning. The idea was help them get back on track and stay there.

Given this profile, the position called for someone who could manage and motivate troubled kids.

My first interview with the program director went well enough, so I was invited back for a second interview. This time, I met with two senior managers from the home office and the program director. I don’t recall much from this interview save a disorienting comment made about halfway through.

One of the senior managers said: “Jim, you seem like a nice enough guy, and I like your answers to our questions, but you seem low-key to me.”

If interviews can be said to have turning points, this was one.

Because his comment took me by surprise, I was rendered temporarily speechless (which may have proved his point). Usually when an interviewer, or as they’re called in academia, a member of a search committee, has a concern about a candidate, he makes a written or mental note of it. It’s brought up afterwards when each candidate’s perceived strengths and weaknesses are discussed and compared. It hasn’t been my experience, either as a committee member or candidate, for a concern to be broached during an interview. Such an action would tend to make the already self-conscious interviewee uncomfortable and defensive, as it did me.

Alas, as sometimes happens to us all in interviews, I didn’t think on my feet. Instead, while waiting for the elevator with the program director, I tried to reassure her that despite perhaps seeming so, I wasn’t low-key — to no avail, apparently, since I wasn’t offered the position. It’s quite possible, of course, that I was passed over for some other reason, but I don’t think so.

Predictably, with the passage of time, several better responses come readily to mind. Like this one, which both acknowledges the concern and then attempts to reassure the questioner: “You’re right, I’m low-key. But I realize for a position like this one, there would be times when I’d need to be a motivator. And I can be that way when I need to be; I have more than one personality — not like Sybil, but in a positive sense.” (The joke is optional and probably not recommended.)

Since that interview, I’ve come to realize that an easy-going temperament and a relative lack of nervousness in an interview, which in my case comes from regularly teaching interview skills, can be misinterpreted as a corresponding lack of interest or drive.

As a former sales representative and supervisor, I attributed much of what success I had to using a soft-sell approach, as opposed to the hard-sell. I made enough sales and heard enough customers tell me they found my style refreshing to encourage me to keep using it. A low-key salesman doesn’t have to be a contradiction in terms. In the same way, a low-key interviewee doesn’t necessarily make an ineffective employee. Still, I don’t kid myself: Part of “selling oneself” in an interview is adopting a traditional sales personality. Such a personality includes a firm, hearty handshake and a chatty, cheerful demeanor.

The lesson I learned from my unsuccessful interview, and one that I emphasize to students, is that there’s an element of acting in the job interview. You’re playing a role: that of a job seeker. And that role calls for you to be friendly and animated, even if those traits don’t come naturally. Not to the point of seeming phony but enough to convince the interviewer you’re definitely interested in the position and have the requisite interpersonal skills. Give off energy and enthusiasm, I say. No, make that energy and enthusiasm!

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