THERE’S a little-known story about the making of the original ‘Blair Witch Project’ that should strike a chord with anyone preparing for a job interview.

According to Heather Donahue, one of the stars of the cult found-footage movie, when auditions were being held in New York the co-directors blindsided her with a question she was not expecting.

“You’ve served seven years of a nine-year sentence,” they reportedly told her. “Why should we let you out on parole?”

Donahue’s improvised response has never been made public, but since she landed the job we can only assume she came up with something good. Then again, she is a professional actor!

Meticulous interview preparation

Short of acting lessons, meticulous preparation is of course the best way for job-seekers to ensure they are not buffeted off course by an unexpected line of questioning.

In this regard, one of the questions you will almost certainly have to face is that banana-skin staple of the job interview:

“What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses?”

The purpose of this question, as the example above illustrates, is to draw you out of your comfort zone and see how you react. You know it’s coming, but what’s the best way to deal with it?

Start with your weaknesses

Let’s be clear – no interviewer expects you to be completely candid about your personal or professional flaws. Admitting that you’re unmotivated or ill-disciplined will score you zero points for everything except naivety.

The clichéd ‘I’m a perfectionist’ approach of trying to make an actual strength appear to be a weakness won’t fly either. It’s been done to death; in fact, it’s tantamount to refusing to answer the question at all.

And interviewers do want you to answer the question. Even in the knowledge that you have prepared and packaged your response, the way you handle such a delicate subject will reveal something about you that they want to know.

Focus on honesty, improvement

In that order. Start by conceding that you do indeed have a weakness – not a major one, obviously, and not one that would be undermining to your prospects of doing the job you are interviewing for. But a weakness nonetheless.

By admitting a failing on your part, you are being honest and that in itself will give you confidence. Your candour will in turn give confidence to the interviewer that they are seeing enough of the real you to make a judgement.

Next, focus on what you are doing to address this weakness. An appetite for improvement is what you are trying to demonstrate here, for example:

“I am quite an emotional person and sometimes that leads me into confrontational situations where I express myself badly or say things to colleagues in a blunt or direct way before I have properly thought them through.”

What are you doing about it?

That’s certainly a weakness, not a particularly bad one admittedly, but no potential employer wants regular confrontation in the workplace. So what are you doing about it?

“Last year I did an evening course in negotiation and conflict management which really helped me to understand what I was doing wrong, and opened my eyes to a better way of communicating my emotions. I’ve learned how to be more diplomatic and less confrontational as a result.”

There may be more to probe here, and of course different people have different weaknesses, but in general this is a good way to approach the negative side of the question. Honesty, and improvement.

Allow your strengths to shine

Next we move on to your positive points, and here your preparation needs to be less about you and more about the company you are hoping to join.

Specifically, the interviewer wants to know which of your skills and strengths will be of use to that company; why your individual qualities make you right for the role.

Start by carefully assessing the job description and then listing all the strengths you have that are relevant. Don’t list any strengths that are not relevant. Don’t include any strengths you don’t actually have (that needs to be said).

When the time comes, you should be in a position to focus on four or five key points that best fit the bill. Make sure they are skills that are specific and pertinent to the job, and have a few examples up your sleeve to show why they align with what the company is looking for.

Don’t be shy, even if talking yourself up doesn’t come naturally. As with all aspects of your interview, preparation and practice will help you to articulate your strengths both naturally and credibly.

Bring your strengths to life

Again, make sure you have a couple of really good, results-driven examples that show how your key strengths – how to write a blog, how to manage a budget – have worked in the past, and could work again for your prospective employer.

Finally, as with all job interviews you should take time afterwards to reflect on what you did well and what needs improvement. This in itself is a strength that will stand to every job applicant.

Fiona Coyle is Hotel & Catering Division Manager at Eden Recruitment