Thursday 29 January 2015 7:41 am

Five terrifying "curveball" job interview questions, and how to prepare for them

We've all been there: you're getting on ok during a job interview, and suddenly the interviewer asks a question you'd never even considered. Your future depends on your reaction to this question. What do you do?

James Reed, the chairman of recruiter Reed, reckons he has the answers. His book, Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again, is Amazon UK's fastest-selling new read on interview techniques.

Which terrifying "curveball" questions do you need to prepare for? Here's what Reed reckons:

1. If you were an animal what would you be? 

The best answers somehow manage to highlight a quality that lines up with the skills needed for the job you’re applying for. Here’s a great example from HootSuite chief exec Ryan Holmes:
During her interview I asked my current Executive Assistant what was her favourite animal. She told me it was a duck, because ducks are calm on the surface and hustling like crazy getting things done under the surface.
If you’re faced with an off-­the-­wall question like this, feel free to take a long pause to consider. You can even say, ‘Give me a moment to think about this one.’ You might even think about getting into the spirit of fun and honest disclosure by asking the same question right back to the interviewer.

2. Every CV has at least one lie in it. What’s yours? 

CVs are an art form and while outright untruths are a terrible idea, presenting your accomplishments in the best possible light is the whole point of the exercise. But when the interviewer asks this question, it isn’t the time to discuss the salesmanship of CV writing. It is the time to try to pass this off with a joke or, should your wit fail you, even a flat denial. Try something like:
Well, it says under hobbies there that I enjoy keeping fit. My wife would say that’s stretching the truth! Seriously though, I don’t believe there are any lies on my CV. I believe integrity on the job is very important and that starts with your CV.

3. Tell me about a time you went against company policy

The key to getting this right is to choose a time you disagreed with a company policy not for personal reasons, but because you felt the rule wasn’t serving the company’s or client’s interests. 
Search for a time when you discovered a company policy that wasn’t suitable to the situation and made a compelling business case to change it to your manager.
At A&B it was company policy that no one could be promoted until they’d worked there six months. It wasn’t something I questioned until I hired a recent grad who was brilliant. Within weeks of him starting I could see he was far too good for the entry-level job he was doing and, given his skills, I doubted we’d be able to hold on to him if I couldn’t give him more responsibility. Plus, it just seemed a waste not to utilize him to his full potential. 

4. Sell me this pen 

Have you seen The Wolf of Wall Street? In it, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a sales ace with a quirky way of evaluating fresh talent: he hands them a pen and asks them to sell it back to him. 
So what’s the right answer to Sell me this pen? In the film, a member of his sales team grabs the pen and hands Belfort a piece of paper. ‘Write your name on the paper,’ he tells Belfort. Now he needs a pen. Selling one suddenly becomes easy.
Mostly, this question is a pop quiz on a fundamental principle of selling – it’s about the customer’s needs, not the features of the product (except, of course, in the unlikely case you’re handed a truly glorious pen of actual and obvious distinction. If it’s diamond encrusted, don’t ignore that.) 
If it’s just your average disposable ballpoint, demonstrate your customer focus in your answer by highlighting the problems the object you’re handed can solve. 

5. Tell me about the last good idea you had 

Take this question as your cue to tell the interviewer something that you don’t want to leave the interview room without sharing. 
That being said, those key points you’re dying to get across shouldn’t just be about you. They need to be tailored to each specific role. Sometimes it is even the case that the interviewer has a list of criteria that you need to meet in order to match the job specifications. 
Non-­work examples are a possibility, but make sure they tie back to a character trait or skill that is relevant for the job at hand. 
But be particularly cautious about giving a personal example if the interviewer’s previous questions have given you the sense there is any concern about your motivation or commitment to the job. If there’s already a suspicion that you are going to be watching the clock for the second it hits 5pm, talking about your passion for dance is going to come across as a glaring warning sign that your true priorities lie outside the office.
– Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again is published by Portfolio Penguin