How to prepare for a panel interview

“Hey bosses! Do you have any tips for a panel interview? I landed an in-person interview next week and it’s a panel interview with nine people at a university research center. The sheer number of people has me intimidated.”

That’s a daunting number of people to ever have a meeting with – much less an interview with, and it can feel like a firing squad when you are sitting before a panel of judges. It’s like American Idol on steroids.

Group vs. Panel Interviews

It’s important to differentiate a panel interview from a group interview.

Group interviews are when you are brought in for a very long interview with other candidates who are all vying for the same job and you’re interviewed all at the same time. That’s a different challenge for a different day.

A panel interview is when you are brought in as the only job seeker – the only candidate, one at a time, and you are sitting before a collective group of people. This is often done when employers and organizations want to make decisions through consensus building, through committee-based decision making because there’s multiple stakeholders involved who might be working with this candidate. Therefore you want to get more people’s eyes on the candidate.

I like to interview folks together because we are a small company and whenever we’re bringing someone on as a contractor, outside consultant, or intern, I love to get a second opinion from other folks who are on the inside of Bossed Up weighing in on those decisions, too.

There’s good reason behind why these are often done, but that doesn’t make it any easier if you are the one being interviewed. Here are my top tips to help you prepare for one of these panel style interviews.

Be mindful of your body language

You’ll want to be very mindful of your body language. Body language tells a big part of the story and it can really influence the impression that all these people are going to get from you.

Throughout the course of your conversation, you’ll always want to maintain an open body position, meaning power pose. Make sure your shoulders are not closing in and that you’re sitting up straight. You want to stay tall – stay open. Make sure your back is never turned to anyone in the room, and the most important thing that really helps with panel interviews is eye contact.

With eye contact, you really want to dole it out evenly. So if person number one is the person who’s asking you the question, start by looking at them as you answer and then travel with your eye contact across the entire room, across the whole panel, and across the whole table.

Nod to make sure you’re connecting with everyone. Show non-verbal cues that you’re listening and make sure you’re really presenting your answer, not only to the person who asked it, but to other folks as well. Nodding can go a really long way in building rapport and connection with other people in the conversation. It makes them want to nod back to you and show that they’re listening, too.

Making strong eye contact with everyone during a panel interview can go a very long way in ensuring that you’re coming across as confident and calm.

Learn and use everyone’s names

Know people’s names. This can be challenging when you’ve got nine people to figure out, but when possible, start by getting a sense from your contacts at the organization who will be sitting in on this interview.

You can ask explicitly – it’s not at all outside of the purview of what you can ask for. Do a little online snooping – maybe even connect with them via LinkedIn if possible, and really try to memorize faces to names. Now, if you’re anxious about that, because I am – I’m not great with names at all, bring a notebook, a clean, nice looking notebook or notepad with you in the interview. When folks sit down and introduce themselves, write their names at the top of your page in the order that they are sitting in front of you. That way you can glance at and refresh your memory if you need to. Showing that you know their names by using them can go a long way, too.

Let’s say Sara asks a great question. You might say, “Sara, that’s a really great question. And actually, Paul, this might relate to your area of study in particular. I’d love to hear your take on this, too, but here’s my take…”

Calling them out by their name can show that you’re doling out, not just the information, but the attention equally amongst different parties and amongst different people. Honestly, when people hear their own name, they feel catered to and they feel included. It’s a very powerful way to build rapport.

Think like a researcher

Speaking of that notebook that you might bring with you. I’m a big fan of this concept because it can also help you ask powerful questions. You want to make good use of the fact that you have a small focus group in front of you. So, think like a researcher.

You want to take advantage of that little focus group in front of you by asking them questions that you want multiple people’s input on. Ask about the culture of the office. Ask about how your position will interface with theirs. Ask about their philosophy is behind the work that they do.

Asking really powerful questions in a panel interview is important because folks are there to contribute, not just to ask questions of you. You want to make sure that they feel like they’re not wasting their time and give them meaningful questions to answer so you can get more insight into the company you might be working for and into the people you might be working with.

If you want to write down your questions ahead of time to show that you’re prepared, that’s great. Bring them written down in your notebook. That’s totally fine. You can even say, “I’ve taken some time to write out a few questions that I want to refer to someone. I just keep this notebook. I’m a note taker.”

You don’t need to go from memory. That’s not necessary by any means. Make sure your notebook looks neat and you’re not scribbling on 17 different pages, and then slipping back and forth loudly between multiple pages, if possible.

Be prepared with handouts

This is slightly related to how you might prepare and what you might bring with you to your interview. You’re going to want to have enough copies of your resumé to hand out to everyone in the panel interview.

Imagine this scenario. This is totally common. I’ve seen this happen before you walk into the interview. The person who organized it is trying to corral eight other people to get them in to this panel interview. Half of them are running late. No one has had a chance to look at your resume yet. They’re coming to this interview basically unprepared, and the person who put the whole meeting together assumes that they read your resume online. Meanwhile, half of them are trying to pull it up on their phones and look at it on their laptops, without being obvious about it. Basically, no one there knows who the hell you are.

That is an unfortunately common situation that we want to help avoid. The best way to do it is to come prepared. I almost think of Elle Woods from Legally Blonde in that scene when her professor asked for her resumé. Of course, she had a copy on hand, and yes, it was pink and it was scented.

You want to be prepared like Elle Woods. You want to have copies of your resumé on hand, and it should match the exact one that you emailed for this job. Bring enough copies for everyone, then everyone will feel prepared, not because of their own work, but because of your work.

Make it easy. Make it seamless. It is always seen as a boss move to come prepared in that way. It really shows that you’re being conscientious of others. You’re being considerate. You’re being organized and you’re helping them help you, which is a great tone to set at the start of any interview.

Get clarity on next steps

Make sure you close any panel interview with clarity on next steps. This is true for any interview. But when it comes to a panel interview, you especially want to know who specifically should you follow up with or who specifically should you wait to hear from. That way you’re not sending nine different follow up emails the next day.

If there’s just one main point of contact for you to stay in touch with, know who that person is. Ask who that person is and leave that panel interview knowing who your point of contact is. It can help make your follow up game seamless and simple.

Practice in front of a panel of friends

Now, if you’re anxious about how you’re going to perform amongst a panel of judges, the last thing I’ll say here is role play. I am a big believer in role-playing as it comes to negotiation preparation, which I talk a lot about in our negotiation online workshop or when it comes to just preparing for any interview. You want to talk it out. You’re not practicing until you’re practicing out loud.

What does this mean for a panel interview? Invite four or five girlfriends over for cocktails on a Wednesday night. Ask them to pretend to be your panel of judges. Set them up. Give them the basic context of what the position is all about and who they’re playing. Go ahead and role play if you can corral your friends into serving in that capacity for you. It is so worth the effort and worth the energy of preparing in that fashion.

Get Hired

If you are a job seeker right now, you’ll want to check out Hired: A Job Search Accelerator. Enrollment is open now for job seekers who want to join me for an intensive three-month job search accelerator, which includes weekly video lessons, small assignments that I provide personalized feedback on, and weekly group accountability calls to keep your motivation going strong throughout what can seem like a long, challenging, and momentarily vulnerable process when it comes to landing the job of your dreams.

You can opt either for the Hired Basic, which includes everything I just mentioned or Hired Premiere, which also includes a monthly one-on-one deep dive strategy call with me. Learn more at Hired: A Job Search Accelerator.

This article first appeared on Bossed Up.