How to Rock an Interview Without Experience, in Three Case Studies

About 2000 years ago, Seneca the Younger coined the phrase, ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’ Successfully breaking into a new career might look like luck, but there is a lot of preparation that came before that opportunity. 

Breaking into a career is especially difficult when the job posting requires experience and you don’t have it. I’ve created a separate article that give some guidance on how to create your own experience. That’s the preparation. In this article we’ll look at a few ways to ensure you take advantage of that first interview.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity

Seneca the Younger

Being called in for an interview is a huge deal.  If you find yourself a little light on experience, you’ll need to harness everything you’ve got to give them a hell of a show. Depending on the role you may be asked to show them a portfolio or to create a presentation to show them that you know your stuff.

Once you get in front of the interviewers you need to check a few boxes.

  1. Know the discipline
    • Show them you know your stuff.  You may not know all the stuff, so whatever you’ve got, turn it up to 11.
  2. Prepare content that represents you
    • Make you presentation or portfolio something that truly represents you, through a fun and accessible topic. Nothing too heavy, you want exclusively positive vibes. If it’s a presentation, practice your material.  Be ready for questions that ask why you might’ve made one choice over another. Prepare a Plan B, as well. 
  3. Execute
    • Embrace that weirdness and own the room. No one is comfortable being interviewed but it’s your interview as much as it is theirs. 
  4. Be memorable (in a good way)
    • No one actually wants to see another canned customer service training deck. And what’s worse, if you go down that path, your canned customer service deck will be compared directly to the canned customer service decks that a seasoned professional will show them. Differentiate yourself. If everyone is selling blue pencil sharpeners, start selling hammers. Do something that represents you, that you know in and out.  Surprise them and entertain them. Take this time to show them why you are a multifaceted individual that can add to their team. 

I had to break into the industry.  I had to show them that my lack of official experience was not a deterrent, and it might even be an asset. 

My Track Record

Using myself as an example here, I’ll work backwards through the numbers to give you my interview experience as some sort of benchmark.  These are approximate numbers and they represent my entire L&D career, from break-in to now.

Successful Applicant: 3x (only 2 discussed in this article)

Multiple Interview Applicant: 5x

Initial Interview Applicant: 9x

Applied to a position: 80+

These are rough numbers but any time I’ve looked for a job, it was a grind. And forget about a job, this is a career we’re talking about. I’m going to use three notable case studies from my own experience to provide you a few data points and hopefully some valuable take-aways for your own journey.

Case Study A

Role: Learning and Development Specialist, Office Supply Company, Ontario

My Story: At this stage I had zero experience. I was about 75% through an Adult Education Certificate from a local college, so I had some book learning, but very little practical application. I was a retail manager trying to break into L&D and this case was a corporate role at the same company. I think part of the reason I got an interview was as a professional courtesy. I was a B+ performer in the role I had when I applied to this job.

Interview Format/Challenge: I had 24 hours to create a job aid, no restrictions. There was no presentation to speak of, just the accompanying interview. They were looking at the job aid to get a bead on my instructional design chops.

Topic and Prep: Sales was always a focus at this company so I attempted to take an entire sales program and cram it onto a two page job aid. I incorporated brand colours, which I thought was great. It was a six step approach to creating a client base.

This is 1/3 of the actual document from 2011. Everybody starts somewhere. This wall of text was where I came from. And remember, together everyone achieves more…

Result: I did NOT get the job and I harbour no ill will around this decision. It was a fair assessment of an inexperienced individual. 

Major Take-Aways:

  • Choose appropriate content
    • I chose the wrong problem to solve: Looking back on that ‘job aid’ now, it was trying to cram an entire sales program onto a front and back sheet of paper.  It was insane! And there are so many words. It’s a wall of text.  
  • Identify or Create the Learner (Ask or Assume)
    • I didn’t ask (or assume) about the learner and through this I clearly demonstrated that I didn’t know what I was doing. There are a million questions that I didn’t  consider; What was the learner context? What was the environment? What job problem was it supposed to solve? Even if you aren’t given all of the information you need, you should make sensible assumptions and line those out in your introduction. “Since I wasn’t able to get X, I made the following assumptions…”
  • Don’t be shocked if you fail
    • Make no mistake, I was not very ‘zen’ when I didn’t get the role, but in hindsight I can see why. I was not ready for a serious role. We need to be honest with ourselves, where our knowledge or skills gaps are. Only then can we make a plan.

Case Study B

Role: Wholesale Lending Trainer, Regional Bank/National Mortgage Lender, Michigan

My Story: I had completed my Adult Learning Certificate and started my own experience development  journey. I had a podcast and blog that explored different L&D topics. This was instrumental in getting my foot in the door. Not only did it give me some sort of ‘experience’, but it was an experience that no other candidates had.  It also gave me some depth in the discipline and an online presence so any hiring manager could get to know me more than other candidates before we’d even said a word to each other. 

Interview Format/Challenge: I was asked to prepare a session between 15 and 45 minutes on the topic of my choice. There would be a small panel of interviewers. 

Topic and Prep: I did the most prep of my life. Through the podcast I was exploring the use of stories and story-telling as part of a training experience. I prepared a rather plain PowerPoint deck with a few flourishes. It was black text on a white background with some reasonable design where images were involved, and a sound layout. 

Presentation Break Down: The reason I want to share this is because it’s not a customer service session. Session outline had the following

  • Storytelling in Music
  • Historical roots of Storytelling
  • Pre-recorded video of my telling my story of wanting to get into L&D
  • Intro to Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey
  • Branching scenario 
    • A) Hero’s Journey applied to The Hobbit
    • B) Hero’s Journey applied to Star Wars
  • Review of my video with the stages of the Hero’s journey applied to it
  • Theoretical Application of the Hero’s Journey to eLearning 
    • Lego guy as a prop
    • White Board breakdown of how it could work

This was a lot of work, but it was all built on the experience I engineered.

Result: I got the job. My first official L&D career. I was elated.

Major Take-Aways

  • Use unconventional topics
    • Due to my lack of actual experience I didn’t realize how unconventional this sort of material for an interview was. It was only because I engineered my own experience that I was able to do this. My presentation didn’t fit any sort of mold they had seen before and that worked to my advantage. 
    • I did what was important to me, showed who I was, and didn’t give them another presentation that on customer service. Since I executed in a competent way, I established trust early on.
  • Avoid gimmicks
    • Content should stand on its own, without the use of crazy fonts and excessive colour schemes. This deck was black text on a white background.
    • The session had two separate videos embedded into the PowerPoint and served a purpose for the content. Demonstrate your competence in a meaningful way
  • Effort will pay you in dividends
    • This session was a lot of work.  I know the material but probably spent three full days crafting, filming, practicing,  printing, and creating contingencies. 

Case Study C

Role: Learning and Development Specialist, National Mortgage Lender

My Story: At this point I had 2-3 years of official corporate experience. So I had gotten past the ‘no experience’ and clawed into ‘some experience.’

Interview Format/Challenge: I was asked to prepare a session between 15 and 45 minutes on the topic of my choice. There would be a small panel of interviewers. When I asked about the room and technology access, I wasn’t able to get verification on if I’d have access to a projector.  As you can imagine this meant I had to try something different.

Topic and Prep: Once again I went with an idea that I had been tinkering with as the time; The Learning Value of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books. I was feeling nostalgic recently and had purchased a couple CYOA books. Iy read one that took place on a moon colony which seemed like appropriate interview fodder. The premise was, “did CYOA book help kids make good decisions, or were they just fun.” I built a decision tree and followed character arcs (and the abrupt character arc changes) and mapped it all out. This took a couple readings, which helped me learn the content inside and out.

Presentation Break Down: With a projector being an unknown, I went low-tech.  I chose a flip chart as my medium and treated it as closely to a powerpoint deck as I could.  I added photos and illustrations by having them printed and gluing them in. I also built in several ‘reveals’ by hiding content with a bit of taped paper, dramatically taking if off when needed. The breakdown went something like this:

  • Intro to myself (complete with childhood photo)
  • Curiosity provoking question
  • Establish the hypothesis
  • Intro and brief history of Choose Your Own Adventure books
  • Breakdown of book content
  • Conclusion

Result: Another winner. I got the job here, too.

Major Take-aways

  • Use unconventional topics
    • I’ve been told by multiple people that were in that interview panel that they had never seen anything like that in an interview. Once again, by going outside the box, I had the advantage. It has to be more than just ‘different’ but if you can demonstrate different+competent+fun then you’ve got great footing.

So, What’s Your Next Move?

On this list from above, where do you need to put time in?

  1. Know the discipline
  2. Prepare personalised content
  3. Execute
  4. Be memorable (in a good way)

Don’t be discouraged if it’s not your time to be called up.  When an opportunity arrives, you need to have already put in the preparation. This preparation is like planning for retirement.  It might not be sexy, but when the time comes, it’s irreplaceable. Keep working at your own content and develop your own ideas and then when an opportunity comes around, swing at it with everything you’ve got. 

Once you’ve got the job…there’s a whole different learning curve. If you’re already comfortable exploring different ideas and connecting the dots, you’ll be prepared for this, too.

2 thoughts on “How to Rock an Interview Without Experience, in Three Case Studies”

  1. I think the hardest part is finding a way to be memorable. It looks different to everyone. great article Dan! I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Christy. The line between memorable and positive is a tough one to walk. But I think with a little planning, most folks can get there.

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