You have all the skills to ace it – Richard Dening on why an Interview Should be like a Game of Tennis

In his career as a barrister, Richard Dening had to ask some pretty awkward questions in public. Now, in his work as an interview coach he gets to ask you the awkward questions, thankfully in private though. And they’re definitely ‘for your own good’ he assures us. Here, Richard shares the advice that’s helped him become one of the most successful and sought after interview coaches in the UK, and why an interview should be played as a game of tennis, rather than a game of cricket.

In the webinar, Richard pointed out the value of structuring your preparation on the past, the present and the future. The online polls revealed that a huge majority of people think that during an interview they are ‘selling themselves’, but few believe that they have a good answer to the question: ‘tell me about yourself.’ He went on to say that in his experience most people answer that question by referring only to the past, starting usually in the distant past.

His second main message was that you should think in pictures. They are easier to remember than lists of words and they allow you to relive the moments that show you using your skills. What are the pictures of you at work that you want to put into the interviewer’s head? Those of you using your skills, of course.

Who are you now?

Richard advises: know who you are now. “I am a ….” or “People say that I am a …..” Interviewers will prick up their ears if you say: “I am problem solver,” or “People say that I am a catalyst for change” Find a noun that you’d enjoy using to describe yourself. It is more powerful – and fun – to claim: “I am a collaborator” with all its historical connotations than to say: “I collaborate with my colleagues”.

Then ask yourself: what three or four pictures of you when you are totally engaged in your work do you want to put into the head of your interviewer so as to give them a broad view of your capabilities? Relive those pictures for yourself and for them. “I love to get my team standing round the whiteboard, everyone adding input to solving a problem.”

Orientate yourself to the future

Richard advised: Think of yourself as selling your determination to achieve goals, identify some relevant examples and see if you can develop a dialogue around them.

This involves really imagining yourself in the role. As well as focusing on the all-important research, ask yourself how you will improve the organisation and how you’ll make a difference.

See if you can picture the occasions when your interviewer would say: “That proves we made the right choice.” Richard gave one example: bosses being able to say to themselves: “I’ve asked him to do that. Now I can forget it. I know it’ll get done.”

How will the interviewer or your future boss judge that you’ve been a success? Make your goals specific and simple. Allow yourself to be as wacky as you like and then temper them down.

Value the ordinary things that make your past unique

Richard says: “A large part of my role is helping people to value the ordinary things they do, those that they take for granted. It’s easy to assume quite wrongly that other people can do them or enjoy doing them.”

He challenged the STAR system as inappropriate for describing achievements. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the context; the interviewers wait impatiently to hear what you did and often they don’t. He suggested starting with a headline: “I did this and this was the result.” Choose a verb – for example – ‘I led’, ‘I masterminded’, ‘I drove through’. Bring the results up front.

Richard says: “This will grab your listener’s attention and arouse their curiosity.”

Then dig deep for the skill. The purpose of your stories is to demonstrate skills. Find them and relive the key moments. “I spotted an opportunity that no one else had. I jumped out of the bath and immediately rang my boss.”


You can either be a very grand person because you excel or you can be surprised that you have a talent which few others seem to have. You are its custodian and want to talk about it because you feel it ought to be put to use.

Sometimes it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’.

Unless you’re on stage, TV or in court there’s no need to always have an immediate answer for everything. Relieve yourself of an impossible standard and reveal your humanness instead.

It’s how you deal with the question that matters, argues Richard. He says: “It’s not a compliment to say ‘he’s got an answer for everything’. As long as you don’t get flustered, it’s ok to say ‘I’d like to think about that,”or “could I come back to that? In fact it can actually be quite powerful to say ‘I don’t know’.”

If you feel you really ought to know the answer, what about: “I know I should have the answer, I feel so stupid. Let me think it through ….”?

Keep both feet on the ground

This shows the interviewer you are a man or woman of action, but, more importantly, makes you feel and act like one, poised and ready to go. With your legs crossed you look and will feel and act more like a ‘talker’ or a ‘thinker’.

Interrupt yourself before they do. As Richard says: “Show you’re in control of your material, rather than the other way around.”

Enjoy the interview!

Look upon the interview as an opportunity to show that you can enjoy yourself in a demanding situation. For the hour forget the long term consequences and focus on enjoying addressing the problem: is the job right for you and are you right for it? Which means that:

It’s tennis not cricket