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Saying it right and clarifying information

Back to: Language for interviewing

How formal is spoken English in an interview?

Formal spoken English is different from formal written English. That's why in an interview it's perfectly normal to use contracted verb forms ("I'd", "I'm", "it's") and phrases that we would not use in formal written English, such as "I've got" rather than "I have". However, avoid slang – which often sounds strange anyway when spoken by a non-native speaker. And, although it is perfectly acceptable to use some colloquialisms (for example, "great"), don't overdo it.

Finding the right words

Many job candidates are worried that they will not be able to express themselves clearly when interviewed in a foreign language. This is where careful and thorough interview preparation really pays off! Your company research will help you increase your vocabulary for the interview, and scripting and recording your answers to possible interview questions will give you practice in using the vocabulary actively. During the interview, listen carefully for key words used by the interviewer and use them in your replies. If you feel you haven't communicated a reply clearly, paraphrase and answer again ("What I mean is ..."). You can also try paraphrasing if you can't find the word you need.

Thinking time

Take your time to answer a question rather than rushing in with the answer before the interviewer has even finished asking the question. On the other hand, don't keep the interviewer waiting for an answer for too long. If you need thinking time before you answer a question, keep eye contact with the interviewer and use a stalling tactic, such as paraphrasing the question ("Do you mean ...?", "So you're asking me if I'm prepared to ...?", "Well, it depends on the situation ...") or asking the interviewer to repeat the question ("I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch what you said."). Avoid using too many hesitant-sounding thinking noises such as "uuum" and "errr" and don't look at the ceiling while trying to come up with an answer.

Clarifying information

Even if you listen very carefully, you may still have to check that you have understood the interviewer correctly for a number of reasons: the interviewer may speak too quickly or with an accent, the acoustics in the room could be bad, there might be a word you have not understood or the interviewer might ask unclear questions. If this is the case, clarify information by repeating the question or paraphrasing:

  • "So you mean ...?"
  • "I'm sorry. I didn't quite catch that. Did you say ...?"
  • "I'm sorry. I'm not sure if I understood you correctly. Do you mean ...?"
  • "Could you repeat the question, please?"


Samples: Saying it right

Interviewer Tell me about a time when you had to work in a team. What was your role in the team?
Good response I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch the second part of the question. Could you repeat it for me please?
Responses to avoid
  • What did you say?
  • What?

The structure of the good response sounds more polite: apologise, say you didn't hear the question and then ask for it to be repeated. Note that "What did you say?" is fine among friends, but too direct in an interview, and "What?" is simply rude.

Interviewer What would you consider to be your greatest strength for the job?
Good response My greatest strength? Well, I'd say my greatest strength with relevance to this job is ...
Response to avoid I don't know really – I need to think about it for a second.

If you need thinking time for a question, you can try repeating the question. Don't simply say you don't know!

Interviewer We originally said that we were looking for somebody to deal with the South Asian markets, but would you also be interested in working in our Middle Eastern division?
Good response I'm really not sure... I need to consider that before I can give you an answer.
Responses to avoid I'm not sure about that.

If you are not sure how you feel about some aspect of the job for which you are not prepared, you can stall with a counter-question or ask for thinking time as in "I need to consider that before I can give you an answer." 

Interviewer The job advertisement said the internship would start at the end of August. Would you be able to start work in the last week of July instead?
Good response The end of July? I'm pretty certain that would be fine, but I need to check my other commitments to confirm if that's okay.
Response to avoid The end of July? I'm not sure. That might be difficult. I need to check my other commitments before I can say yes to that.

If you are asked to start work earlier than planned and you're not certain it's possible, give an upbeat answer that leaves things open rather than closing the door on the opportunity. The candidate says neither "yes" nor "no" in both responses above, but the good response sounds much more positive, confident and flexible than the second.

Back to: Language for interviewing