The “Oddball” Question

Posted by: Matt Nagler, Managing Partner
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Matt Nagler

Interviewers pose a lot questions. It’s their job, after all. There are a lot you’ve already thought about; your strengths and weaknesses, how you handle challenging team members, why you’re a good fit for the company. Then there are the ones that are designed to catch you off guard. “If I came over for dinner tonight, what would you serve me?” (Asked by Trader Joe’s.) “What two celebrities they would want for parents?” (Urban Outfitters) “Describe the color yellow to someone who is blind.” (Spirit Airlines)

While these aren’t the norm, “oddball” questions are becoming more common. Aimee Pitchee of MoneyWatch called it the “google-ization of the interview process.” Google has been known for asking open-ended questions that can’t be studied in advance for years now and more and more companies are starting to do the same. Not just for the very top positions, but for all of them. Why? Because when an interviewer asks truly unexpected questions, she gets some insight into how the candidate handles unforeseen challenges, the way he thinks through tough problems and how he communicates that process and the answer (especially if there isn’t one.)

So what are some strategies you can use if you get an ‘oddball’ question at a job interview?

Take a moment to gather yourself. You want to make sure the interviewer knows you are taking the question seriously and that you are prepared to give a thoughtful answer, even when it’s not at the tip of your tongue. It’s okay to smile, or even laugh, but make sure to follow that up with, “that’s a really great question.” It is not okay to laugh in a mocking way. Exclaiming, “Are you serious?” or “I don’t cook” if you’re asked what you would serve for dinner is a sure fire way to not get to the next round.

Ask Questions. There’s no right answer to questions like these. There are right questions. One of the traps that candidates can fall into with questions like these is forgetting that they’re in an interview and not just in a conversation. You need to relate your answer back to the job at hand. So think about the job you’re applying for and what skills of yours you want to focus on. “How would you describe the color yellow?” If someone asks you that in an interview for a customer service job, focus on the customers. Are they partially or completely blind? Is it congenital or did it happen recently? Why do they need to know what yellow looks like?

Think out loud. Your thinking process is what the interviewer is hoping to get a glimpse of, so don’t think to yourself and then give a one-word answer. This is also a good chance to show your personality. Your favorite song to work to? Give the interviewer an honest answer and let them know why – always linking it back to the interview. “’Eye of the Tiger’ may not be the coolest song anyone’s picked, but it always reminds me that hard work and persistence in the face of adversity are what truly matter when you’re trying to accomplish something difficult.”

While no one can be fully ready to answer any question, if you’ve done your research on the company and position and remember that your answers should always be more about “we” than about “me,” even the strangest question will be an opportunity for you to shine.