The French Onion Soup Technique

College students are often under the mistaken impression that they must conduct themselves perfectly in an interview. If they make a mistake, they've had it. Interview over. Give it up. You are history.

In truth, that point of view often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it does not have to be that way. Occasional stumble errors do happen in interviews. But if you use your error as an opportunity for some well-placed humor, you can actually increase your odds.

Let me give you an example. I was on a luncheon interview with three partners from the firm I hoped to work for after college. I made the foolish error of ordering French onion soup. Why an error? Well, it wasn't just onion soup—it was French onion soup. So it also had that chewy, crusty piece of French bread smothered with mozzarella cheese buried in the steaming broth. Still don't see the problem? Let me describe it to you graphically—every time I tried to take a spoonful of the soup, it came attached with a two- to three-foot strand of stringy cheese. As hard as I tried, I could not get that cheese to separate from the bowl on the way to my mouth. So there I was, trying to convince these managers that I would make an outstandingly graceful consultant, when I could not even gracefully handle the bowl of soup sitting in front of me.

So what did I do? I took the spoon out one last time, lifted it high into the air—with all eyes at the table fixed on the three-foot strand of cheese—and stated calmly, "I promise you that I will never, ever again order French onion soup for as long as I work for this firm. One of my greatest assets is that when I make a mistake, I recognize it, change, and never make that mistake again!" We all broke into laughter. That broke the tension and made everyone feel comfortable again.

If there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it, make a joke about it and move on.

P.S. I got the job.

So if you make an obvious error, use a little self-deprecating humor to remove the tension—and the error—from the situation. It shows that you can admit to your own mistakes and laugh at yourself at the same time—two valuable traits for any potential employee.

Another example was a student who arrived for the company-site interview minus his luggage (containing his interviewing suit), which apparently chose to take an alternate flight to Los Angeles. Others might have considered calling off the interview in disgust, but he showed up in his blue jeans, sweatshirt, and tennis shoes. As he met each new person during the interviewing process, he began by assuring them that he really did own a blue pinstripe suit. Everyone got a good laugh and he got the job.

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