How to Beat Interview Fear

Don’t let fear, nerves and stage fright keep you from the job interview you want.

“Sometimes nerves take over and you don’t show who you are.”

Those are the words of an auditioning actor in “Every Little Step,” a 2008 documentary that follows the process of casting the 2006 Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.” But they could just as easily have been spoken by anyone who has ever been nervous before a job interview or looked back on his interview performance with regret.

Whether you are an actor stepping onto an audition stage or a job seeker entering a conference room, the pressure to perform to the best of your ability can cause anxiety that threatens to cripple your performance.

For some job seekers, nerves can be disabling and lead to an unsuccessful job interview. Something happens when they walk through the door of the interviewer’s office. Cold sweat trickles down the back of their knees. Their minds draw a blank when asked basic questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?” or, “Why would you like to work for this company above all others?” These candidates feel like they’re back at school in front of a crowded assembly, unable to make those words pass their lips.

Actors call it “stage fright” – the fear of underperforming in front of a paying audience or at an audition – and almost all good actors acknowledge batting it at one time or another. Many learned tricks early to overcome a paralyzing phobia that can kill their careers. (Remember the instruction to imagine the audience in their underwear?)

Ladders asked several actors and acting coaches to share the tactics they use to keep stage fright from paralyzing their performance and tips to deliver the best audition during your next job interview.

Be prepared

There are many things that job interviewees can do to stave off stage fright. For actor John Treacy Egan, star of such Broadway hits as “The Producers” and “The Little Mermaid,” the key to overcoming nerves and ensuring you ace the audition is simple: preparation.

“In ’Every Little Step,’ ” he said, “it is fantastic to see how prepared a lot of these performers were for their auditions.” Egan, a veteran of stage, cinema and television and an authority on auditioning, was inspired by the documentary. “I really need to be more prepared,” he realized after seeing the film. “You sometimes think, ‘Oh, I will do fine, and it will get me to the next stage.’ You can get lax like that as an actor. You really need to give that performance the first time and not rely on a callback. Be as prepared as you can be.”

Jodie Bentley, owner and co-founder of The Savvy Actor, a New York firm that coaches actors on the business of acting and teaches them how to market themselves, supports Egan’s philosophy that preparation is vital. “So many people just wing it and say, ‘I am just going to be me!’ And then when we get in the interview situation, we all clam up if we don’t have something planned and prepared.”

Comfort with your costume

What you wear for your interview or audition can set the stage for your nerves – it can sap your spirit or boost your confidence, Bentley said. “I’m coaching an actress right now who is really a leading lady, but she is having trouble owning (those roles),” she said. “You need to dress that part, and that confidence will come. I think (the right clothing) helps body language in an interview as well.”

Your appearance goes beyond clothes, Egan said. It extends to all aspects of your physical presentation – your posture, pose, expressions and voice.

“Always try to put yourself in comfortable situations,” Egan said. “You have a lot of people around you in the professional world to help you. Ask them, ‘Does my outfit look correct? Does my voice sound right? Is my hair cut right?’ Practice interviews with your friends.”

Breathe and shake!

What if you are well dressed, well groomed and well prepared but you still feel like a panic attack is approaching? Stage fright, said Egan, usually occurs about five minutes before the actor goes on stage. Actors beat back the paranoia by breathing, he said.

“Whenever you start to experience fear, the first thing that you have to do is remember to breathe. Fear stops your breathing, and everything starts to tighten. Breathing opens the door to relaxation.”

“You can tell right away when someone walks up and they are not breathing,” Bentley said. “They are not in their body, and they look uncomfortable. Breath is a force of life. I really believe that.” She recommends a breathing exercise that she does before going on stage or before a big meeting or audition: “It is rapid breathing through the nose. It really centers you and calms you.”

Egan advises that you give yourself a chance to shake it off. Literally. “Shake your limbs and jump up and down and give the adrenalin the chance to have an outlet of actual movement.”

If you’re feeling the pains of panic set in, find yourself a private space – a lobby bathroom or a secluded corridor – and practice these breathing and shaking tips to beat back stage fright.

The elevator pitch

Bentley instructs her clients to practice role-playing exercises before an audition and to have an elevator pitch or monologue memorized and at the ready. Everyone’s interview routine should include a 45-second blurb, she said. “If someone says, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ you already have a monologue or blurb ready to go.” She encourages her clients to rehearse their elevator pitches and asks that it convey “something personal about you, showcase your strengths and show what you are passionate about.”

Bentley believes the elevator pitch should be carefully crafted and learned. “Type it out. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Look at yourself while you are doing it.”

Also, research all you need to know about the company where you hope to work. Prepare your thoughts about the business and industry and have some ready answers about the them, she said.

From the moment you walk in, be real

The interview isn’t just how you answer questions or explain your skills, Egan said. That would be like limiting an actor’s audition to his reading and singing, he said. “From the moment you walk through the door, you have to be available as a real person. You cannot shut down when you aren’t singing and dancing. You want to be present for all of it. It is the same for an interview. You take yourself on as a character.”

Bentley warns her clients about being overly intimidated and losing the essence of their personalities in the process. “Many people get into interview settings and look at that person across the table as an authority figure. I think that is the worst thing that you can do.”

Bentley encourages interviewees to show their passions and interests because people want to work with people they like. “That is definitely a rule in theater. If a director is going to be working with you for four to eight weeks straight, he has got to like you first. And it is the same if somebody is going to bring you onto a team in their company: they need to like who they are going to be working with. People want to work with people who are passionate.”

The multiple-person interview

In a one-on-one interview, you can balance your energy against that of the other person. “You can sense the temperature in the room much quicker in a one-on-one than with a group,” Egan noted. If the interview is with a group of interrogators, your balance and attention are taxed like an actor on stage connecting to an audience.

The first rule: Acknowledge everybody in the room, he said.

Bentley agreed. “When you have a room full of people,” she said, “I think it is your job to keep the energy up in the air a little bit more. It is more of a hot-seat situation. I think you really need to take in the whole room and not just answer one person. Eye contact is really important.”

Ask questions; don’t freeze

Confidence in the interview or audition is evident when you are fully prepared. “I would recommend preparing stories about your resume that show your personality, your strengths or your work ethic,” Bentley advised. “If you have these prepared and memorized to a certain degree, you will always have something that you can pull out of your back pocket if the nerves begin to take over.”

Egan suggested notecards as a last resort. “Even if you have to look down, at least you’re getting your point across as opposed to freezing.”

Another way to keep grounded and in the moment it is to have a few questions prepared to ask the interviewer. “If you get stuck and you don’t know what else to say, don’t just sit there. Have a couple of questions prepared and know your audience,” Bentley said. She instructs her clients to have three personal questions and three business questions prepared that they can insert at any moment. “So if you know that a person lives in a certain area of the town, you could ask if they have ever gone to a particular pizza parlor. Or if you know that they went to a certain college and you know someone that went there, you can bring that up.”

“Always ask questions,” Egan said. “An interested person is an interesting person.”

Take your time when you speak, and select your words. “Don’t talk too fast. Speak clearly and slowly,” he said.

Faking it

The interview is underway, and you still feel insecure. How can you project something you’re not feeling? “Act it,” Egan said. “You really have to fake it. No one will know. You have to tell yourself to be confident. It really is about projecting confidence because nobody wants to hire somebody who is not confident.”

A lot of actors walk into an audition and apologize for not being ready because they only received the music that day. Directors don’t want to know that, he said. He recommends that the actor approach the situation with confidence by declaring his intention to sing something else. “Don’t apologize. Walk in and show them that you can carry the show. I hate to say this because it can be taken another way, but you are doing them a favor by being there. They need somebody to fill their position, and you are going to be really good at it.”

Analyzing the performance afterwards

“Don’t judge the interview until it is over,” Egan said. “Oftentimes, you can go into an audition and feel you got the job, but you may never get the phone call. And if you feel like you did blow an opportunity, you should take a moment to learn from it and build upon it rather than repeat it.

“You should always analyze what your stage fright is about,” he said. “If you can identify what you are afraid of, you can address it. Often, for people who suffer from stage fright it is one big thing (that the feeling originates about).” But it is more likely that minor aspects of performing cause you anxiety. Do you feel you are being judged? Do you feel unprepared? Do you focus too much on your own behavior or appearance? Identify the crux of your stage fright, and performance anxiety could be a thing of the past.