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What You Said vs. What You Meant: When What They Heard Lost You the Job

We have all been there. Even the most well-intentioned person has the occasional wording snafu, leaving them wishing they had thought harder before speaking. Add the pressure of interviewing for your dream job, and the margin for error quadruples. 

So if you ever left an interview confident you nailed it, only to find out someone else won the job, maybe it was something you said. Your words carry heavy weight in the interview and even if it’s not what you meant, sometimes the interviewer may be scared off by something you said. 

Here are some common interview misspeaks and ways to avoid them.

Interview Question

“I notice you have been out of work for a little while now. Why the gap in employment?”

What you said: “I’ve had many offers, but I have been picky in my job search.”

What was heard: You are inflexible and have unrealistic expectations. 

A better way to say it: “I have been very selective/thorough in my job search because I want to join a company I can see myself with long term and really make a difference. I am not making this decision lightly.”

“Picky” has negative associations like a child’s finicky eating habits or being a fussy person or employee. It’s best to avoid that word during a job interview. 

Interview Question

“How would your past employers describe your work ethic?” 

What you said: “They would say I don’t leave for the day until everything is done because I’m stubborn about completing my work.” 

What was heard: I’m obstinate!

A better way to say it: “They would say I am meticulous and go the extra mile to see projects through to completion.”

While your intention was to show that you hold yourself to a high standard at work, all they heard was stubborn—which translates to difficult, contrary, headstrong, and uncompromising.

Interview Question

“You mentioned your last role wasn’t a good fit. Can you expand on that?”

What you said: “The culture wasn’t a good fit; my boss was a tyrant.”

What was heard: I have no respect for management and I am insubordinate. 

A better way to say it: “Unfortunately, the position and expectations set for me were inconsistent and I did not feel like I was in a position where I could find success. I didn’t think it was fair to the company or myself to remain in a role I wasn’t fully committed to any longer.” 

At all costs avoid any wording that is derogatory to describe your former employer or company. Even if it’s true. So also scratch off the list awful, miserable, horrible, horrendous, stupid, hate, loath, detest... you get the point.  

Interview Question

“What would you say is your greatest strength?” 

What you said: “I get my work done at a fast pace. I was always the first person to complete all my tasks in my last job.”  

What was heard: I’m careless and fly through my work so that I can be the first person out the door! 

A better way to say it: “I pride myself on time management and being extremely focused and efficient. I work well in a deadline-driven environment.”

Fast can easily be misinterpreted as hurried or rushed. Replacing these adjectives with a word like efficient represents you as a helpful and valuable member of the team.

Interview Question

“We use Excel as our main software in our accounting and finance group. How would you describe your Excel skills?”   

What you said: “Oh, Excel is no problem, I am an Excel master. I’ve been using it for years. I can do it all.”

What was heard: I have no room for improvement and know more than most about Excel. Basically, I’m a know-it-all.  

A better way to say it: “I would describe myself as a competent Excel user. I have used it extensively in my last two roles for reporting on a daily basis. Specifically, I utilized v/h look-ups and pivot tables. There are thousands of functions within Excel, but I do feel that I am a capable user. How would you be looking for someone to utilize it in this role?” 

Describing yourself as a “whiz” or “master” is risky in an interview. No organization wants a new employee coming in that “knows it all.” Every company uses software packages differently to suit their needs. Hiring managers want to hear how you did something.  Explain how you utilized a software and let them decide if you are the master.

Interview Question

“How do you handle multiple projects at once? The office can be a bit chaotic and stressful around deadline time.”  

What you said: “I am laid back by nature. I don’t sweat the small stuff.”

What was heard: “I am careless and lazy. It’s your neck on the line, not mine!”

A better way to say it: “I am composed and work well under pressure.”

Using language like composed equates to levelheaded and poised, which are positive qualities in every work environment. When you describe yourself as laid back, that can translate to lax and chill, which are not great qualities and can mean you don’t care enough about the finished product.

Be conscious of any words and phrases that could be interpreted as slang, hyperbole, extreme, or offensive in any way. Don’t let what you say get in the way of what you mean!