When Candidates Get Carried Away Talking — 5 Tips for Keeping the Interview on Track


One of the most frequent pain points I hear from hiring managers and interviewers involves dealing with candidates who, frankly, talk too much. It may sound trivial, but this is a widespread problem that can significantly impact your ability to assess candidates effectively.

Imagine yourself sitting across the table from an otherwise compelling candidate who is full of energy and enthusiasm. Their prior job experiences are spot-on, and they received glowing recommendations from a trusted colleague who worked with them in the past. You are eager to learn more about them and you are prepared with a thoughtful, well-scoped interview guide. You ask your first question to get the ball rolling, and they start talking. And talking. And talking. You want to follow up on an interesting point, but they are already on to their next side-story. 15 minutes have passed, and you are not even on to your second question. Where did it all go wrong? What do we do now?

It is, of course, tempting to simply write off a candidate who can’t offer succinct responses, particularly if the role requires strong verbal communication skills and interpersonal acuity. This may very well be the right decision, especially if the behavior is pronounced and if you have made an earnest effort to rein them in. But sometimes it’s not that simple—I have seen many situations where an overly talkative candidate went on to perform brilliantly in the new role, and the issue was merely one of nerves. I have also observed many interviewers who were actually enabling this behavior through a lack of rapport and interpersonal engagement. The candidate was essentially filling a void in the room because the interviewer lacked the assertiveness needed to keep things on track.

There are five techniques I use to help keep the conversation focused, and nip over-talking issues in the bud.

1. Set expectations

When kicking off the interview, let the candidate know up-front that there is a lot that you are excited to cover with them, and that you are aware that time is limited. You can even ask their permission to nudge or interrupt them every now and then to ensure you leave plenty of time for their questions at the end. That way, the candidate understands the need to be succinct before you’ve needed to call them out (i.e., before they have done anything wrong), and you are doing it for their own benefit. This approach is especially useful if your recruiters or other members of the interviewing team have informed you that this person might be a challenge.

2. Interrupt frequently…but enthusiastically!

In the course of a typical CEO assessment, I may interrupt a candidate 10, 20 or more times. And I don’t mean apologetic, “if-you-don’t-mind-me-jumping-in” kind of interruptions—I mean bold, unabashed, talking-over-them kinds of interruptions. What is fascinating is that most candidates are not even aware that it is happening, because my interruptions come from a place of deep curiosity and enthusiasm. My face and my words essentially communicate, “I am so interested in your story that I can’t help myself!” This approach requires building very strong rapport with the candidate, which can only stem from legitimate interest in who they are as a human being. It can’t be faked! But when that rapport is strong, interruptions are relatively effortless.

3. Use the “W” face

In an in-person or video-based interview, I have found that the single most effective way to get a candidate to let you jump in is to simply purse your lips in a “W” shape, as if you are about to ask a “What” question. Humans are programmed to interpret this unique mouth-shape as an indication that the other person is about to ask a question. Try it out! Next time you are talking to a friend, simply purse your lips—and, for extra credit, tilt your head slightly while raising your finger a few inches. In the English-speaking world, this pattern of movements is a near-universal sign that the other person wants to ask a question, and it does not require anything more than a visual cue.

4. Use the “Sss” sound

If it’s a phone interview, the W face (and associated head/hand movements) obviously won’t get you very far. What you need is a subtle sound that accomplishes the same goal of indicating your desire to interject. Over the course of hundreds of phone interviews, I have found that the “Sss” sound is by far the most effective, because this higher-frequency sound tends to be clearer and more audible over most phone connections. I use the “Sss” sound as a precursor for the word “So,” as in, “Sss…so what did you…” Again, try this out the next time you are on the phone with a talkative person. The other party should be able to hear this sound clearly, even when talking, and most will take it as a cue to let you interject.  

5. If all else fails, cut them off, and blame the clock

This is not a technique to use wantonly, because it requires a minor (though temporary) breach of interpersonal rapport. If you have critical questions you need to cover, and time is running dangerously short, try raising your open hand or giving a very polite “time out” signal. This is a more direct way to stop another person from talking, and it may initially catch them off guard. Therefore, it is critical to follow this up with an apology. Try something like the following:

“I am so sorry to cut you off. I just looked at the clock and realized we only have [X] minutes left! My apologies. I really want to make sure I get to a few more questions I had for you, and also make sure you have time to ask your questions as well. Here’s a suggestion—let me run through these next questions, and perhaps we can start with the HEADLINE, and if it makes sense to dive deeper, we can do that. Does that work for you?”

At this point, the candidate has received a clear but non-threatening signal from you, and they are likely to take the hint.

Once you build comfort with these techniques, you will greatly increase the amount of information you can cover in an interview, and reduce over-talking issues by 80% or more. There may still be challenges from time to time, of course. But if you have used these approaches diligently, you can confidently conclude that the problem lies with the candidate, and not with your inability to manage the dialogue effectively.

Need to train your teams on hiring and interviewing skills? Visit our website at www.burtonadvisorsllc.com

Jordan Burton is the founder of Burton Advisors LLC, a boutique talent advisory firm serving a select group of high growth companies and their investors to help them identify, attract, hire and retain top talent at all levels. He was formerly a Partner at ghSMART& Company and a Case Team Leader at Bain & Company, serving clients in the high technology and private equity industries. 

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