Last week my sister, her husband, and four children visited. While she was here, we spoke about her nine-year-old son who needed to improve his reading. Sounded like a call for “Uncle Andy time,” so a couple days later he and I sat down to read before our family dinner. When we finished, I asked him to get his mother so he could tell her what he just read. The look of panic on his face was mirrored by his words, “But Uncle Andy, I always have trouble remembering what I read.” I said, “Don’t worry. Today you remembered.”
My sister plopped on the couch with us and I asked my nephew to tell her what he just learned. After his ten minute dissertation on everything there is to know about sea turtles, their shells, how many eggs they need to lay in order for an offspring to survive, and a host of other facts I never imagined I’d know about sea turtles, she looked at me with a melded expression of joy and bewilderment followed by a “How did you do that?” I said, “It was simple. I made him feel the words. Then we chunked the chapter so he could store it more easily. Then we built him a retrieval structure so he could recall it.” She asked, “You did what?”
Reading comprehension is no different than any other experience in which you need to remember something. Simply reading more will not make you a more effective reader. It might help improve your vocabulary and spelling, but since my nephew is a spelling bee champion, I wasn’t concerned about his ability to spell, pronounce, or string words together to make sentences. You read for two reasons; You either need access to information you’ll need to know or learn for something in the future or you want to be entertained. Therefore, the actual skill to improve is comprehension and memory.
Interview comprehension and remembering specifics of the job interview are no different. You are trying to evaluate a candidate to determine whether that person is a strong fit for your organization, but the ultimate decision to hire the candidate rarely happens in real time. Teams need to debrief and discuss the outcome, requiring them to recall what the candidate did, said, and so forth. Sometimes these discussions happen several days or weeks later. So how do you organize the interview to ensure you’re not only more effectively evaluating the job candidate, but also remembering them with the accuracy this deserves?
Before we look at the interview, we need to understand how to improve memory in general. Many studies have been done to evaluate working memory. (You can Google Working Memory, Short-Term Memory, or Chunking Theory for more information.) Most people can remember somewhere between five and nine “things.” Most people top out at seven. We’re talking about unique things such as numbers, letters, and objects. If for example, I asked you to remember the letters A, O, C, I, G, H, C, it’ll take some effort to remember them in that order. After all, that’s seven items. What if I asked you to remember the word CHICAGO? Not only would you be able to remember all the letters, but you could cite them backwards and still have room to store another six items. I just made seven items one. That’s chunking.
Now, imagine you’re a geographist. You know where Chicago is located. It’s in Illinois. Illinois is surrounded by Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Iowa. Your knowledge enhances your ability to remember where the cities and states are located. It becomes even easier if you’ve visited them because the mental images provide additional contexts. The word Chicago now sparks feelings of the good time you had when you visited. This expertise and experience is the key to helping you build a retrieval structure that not only allows you to store more in your working memory, but also helps you tap your long-term memory in the future.
When building your interviewing process and teams, your goal should be to best position your company to make the most accurate aggregated assessment of the candidate. Many companies require the candidates to speak to several people all of whom want to begin the interviews with a “tell me about yourself” question that typically results in six hours of interviewing for the candidate yielding one hour’s worth (six times over) of unmemorable data for the company. You can improve the quality and quantity of information you gather as well as better interpret and remember the interviews by making one simple adjustment.
Shrink each interviewer’s focus. Effective interviewing is difficult enough and companies tend to complicate matters by requiring (or allowing) untrained interviewers to wander well beyond their areas of expertise. This creates a multitude of issues. First, you cover more topics at a superficial level, which leads to a significant amount of unknown information about many areas! This requires the interviewer and candidate to fill in these unknowns using assumptions, which often leads to uninformed decisions. Second, it makes it far more difficult to retain the critical elements because there were too many items covered to remember (bad chunking) and they were in areas the interviewer is not proficient (hampering the retrieval structure).
One of the easiest and fastest improvements a company can make is to shrink the interviewer’s focus to only those areas he is qualified to assess and discuss. This will allow for deeper discussions containing higher quality information and allocate ample time needed for clarifications (minimizing misinterpretations and assumptions). Lastly, it will make it easier for the interviewer to draw a more accurate, memorable assessment of the job candidate because he is exploring areas well-known to him (good retrieval structure).
I’d strongly suggest designing the overall process with interviewers that are well-versed in their areas of exploration, even if this requires adding interviewers to the mix or conducting multiple discussions with the same interviewer.