In her heyday on TV, Barbara Walters nearly always ended an interview with some famous (or infamous!) personality by asking them some inane question like this: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” If the person being interviewed was prepared for the question, then his or her answer wouldn’t be all that surprising or unexpected. On the other hand, if that person was somehow caught off-guard, well, the resulting answer could be quite interesting and oftentimes very revealing of the interviewee’s personality and character.
This interview technique was quickly, and perhaps not all that unexpectedly, perceived to be so “cute,” so different from the typical, mainstream approach, that soon it was quickly adopted by some professionals conducting job interviews. For example, a question asked of someone applying for a sales position might go like this:
“If you were an animal, what type of animal would you be?”
Then, after a run of, say, ten years or so, these “out of left center field” questions began to fall out of vogue. (Maybe the interviewers themselves simply became bored by them?) But guess what? For whatever reason(s), we are beginning to see a resurgence of these types of job interview questions. Just last month two of the candidates I presented to my client companies were asked “Barbara Walters” type questions during the interview. (Both the candidates and I were totally “blind-sided,” i.e., we were not expecting such questions!)
So, perhaps it is true: Things that were once new and then became old can sometimes come back around as “new” again.
For whatever reason or reasons these interview questions have resurfaced (or may be resurfacing), the wise job candidate will at least be prepared to adequately field them. They should be prepared to shape their answer(s) in such a fashion as to properly brand themselves for the position under consideration. Oh, there will be some candidates who will be offended (outraged!?) by this type of question, or consider the questions (perhaps rightfully so) to be both irrelevant and bordering on the ridiculous! So be it. But remember, today’s job market is definitely a “buyer’s market,” and hiring managers and/or Human Resources professional can take whatever approach they like, and usually they do! Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to “make sense” to the candidates.
My best advice: Don’t fight it! Roll with it! Have fun with it! But above all else, be prepared for these types of questions, which usually, though certainly not always, are asked during a time in the interview when you least expect them. (To further extend my baseball analogy used above, think of these types of questions as sort of a “change up” pitch during the interview, i.e., when the “pitcher,” in this case, the interviewer, goes from “throwing” “fast balls” to suddenly throwing you a “curve ball”!). How you handle such questions can quickly and irrevocably brand you as someone who . . .
- Can think on his/her feet (or not!)
- Is creative and adaptable to changing situations (or not!)
- Has a sense of humor (or not!)
Also Referred to as ‘Touch-Feely’ Questions
Sometimes such interview questions are also referred to as “touchy-feely” questions, and they, like virtually all questions asked during a job interview, are essentially designed (or at least should be designed) to determine one (or more) of the FOUR basic questions about the position under consideration—whether or not the interviewer himself/herself is even aware of it:
- Can the candidate actually do the job?
- Does the candidate actually want to do the job?
- Will the candidate actually do the job?
- Is the candidate a good cultural fit?
Let’s say, for example, the interviewer asks the candidate who is applying for an accounting position this “off the wall” question:
“If you were a color, what color would you be?”
Suppose the candidate answered in this way:
“I definitely would be red because it’s my favorite color. To me, it suggests excitement, some degree of risk, and fun!”
BZZZZZZZ! Probably the wrong answer, especially for an accounting position.
A better answer might be this one:
“I definitely would be black because that’s what a good accountant should always be focusing on, staying ‘in the black.’”
Now, obviously, I’ve incorporated a little exaggeration and some “tongue-in-cheek” in these sample answers, but I do that simply to drive home a key point: How you actually answer questions such as these does in fact specifically brand you as a candidate perhaps worthy of further consideration, or not.
Take These ‘Barbara Walters’/‘Touchy-Feely’ Questions Seriously!
You would also be ill-advised to assume that, when the interviewer asks you such questions during the job interview, that he or she is merely being frivolous. Maybe he/she is, maybe he/she is not! If—and that, admittedly, is still somewhat of a big “if” in today’s job market—you are asked such questions during a job interview, always assume that the interviewer is asking them in earnest and respond accordingly and appropriately. Respond as you would to any other interview question, only after giving the question serious thought and weighing the probable impact/perception precipitated by your answer(s).
How can you possibly prepare for such interview questions? The simple answer is this: The same way you prepare for any question you can reasonably anticipate being asked during a job interview. Write down any and all questions you can reasonably anticipate being asked by an interviewer, then create answers that specifically and meaningfully address the inherent issues contained in the questions. And, of course, you do all of this before the actual interview!
For example, let’s assume that you have an interview scheduled for a pharmaceutical sales position. You know (or certainly should know) that you will be asked questions about your past (or current) sales production, what your current (and future) sales goals are, any unique approaches you’ve successfully used to generate sales, etc. But what if you are also suddenly asked this “Barbara Walters”/”touchy-feely” question:
“If you were an automobile, what kind would you be?”
Maybe your immediate answer would be something like this:
So far, so good, but unfortunately, not quite good enough. You need to elaborate on why you would choose to be this particular car. Here is how you might do that:
“I would definitely be a Corvette because I want to be able to get to as many prospects as I can, in the fastest, most efficient way.”
I hope by this point, then, that you have a.) Accepted, at least to some degree, the fact that you may actually be asked “Barbara Walters”/”touchy-feely” questions during your next job interview; b.) That you are determined to have fun with such questions if you are asked them; and c.) That you will go to your next interview prepared to answer such questions in a manner that will brand you as a true professional, one who doesn’t necessarily take himself/herself all that seriously, but definitely takes his/her job very seriously.
And, remember: If you are asked “Barbara Walters”/“Touch-Feely” questions during a future job interview, do take them seriously, but also have at least some fun with them!
NOTE: I would love to hear about any experiences you might have with these types of questions, if you are in fact asked them in future job interviews. Please email me at email@example.com.
Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.