Freelancer's interview checklist

The majority of permanent and freelance candidates going into interviews for projects and longer term contracts are under prepared, writes Russell Dyer, of CV specialists Accendo Career Management Services.

It is important that candidates, whether they are full-time or freelance, do as much research as possible prior to attending an interview or pitch. Preparation, practice and performance are the key principles to a successful interview or pitch.

Underpinning the 'three-Ps' are the following 15 tips, each designed to make the most of your interview/pitch, and help you achieve that all-important offer of a contract, whether it be for three weeks, three months or longer.

1. Grasp the initial basics 

It may sound basic but it amazes me how many people still fall at the first hurdle by not getting the essential details right from the off. Always check the date, time and place of the interview. Ensure that you arrive on time and know the name of the interviewer, so you can ask for them personally when you enter. Be polite upon your arrival to everybody you meet, not just the interviewer. Being courteous is easier when you're not rushed, so lay out your clothing the day before the interview. Getting prepared beforehand, and even doing a dress and travel rehearsal, leaves you more time to organise your thoughts come pitch/interview day. And it might sound obvious to the well-heeled freelancers, but please dress appropriately. You might wish to represent the creative sector, and you might expect to spend much of the contract you're seeking working remotely, out of sight, but a conservative dress sense is always best for being the safest best. However, if you firmly believe that you should appear casual rather than formal, you should gauge the culture of the organisation by contacting the client's offices/recruitment agent, or by checking their website, before you make any bold wardrobe decisions! Almost all of the time - do wear smart attire and, if you're meeting me, ensure your shoes are shiny and well-kept!

2. Ready your interview tools

Read over your CV and make sure you can recite its contents with your eyes closed; well, the important parts at least! Have your CV, references, portfolio and any additional information that has been requested with you and, importantly, have it to hand.

3. Know your mark

Before the interview, collect as much information as possible about the client organisation - turnover, products, markets, locations, plans for growth, problem areas. Not only will this impress the interviewer but it will also generate questions for you to ask of them, or any client staff who you might encounter. Remember, clients know that freelancers are in business on their own account and they will expect you to act and ask questions accordingly.

4. Field the easy ones before they hit

Pre-empt the questions you are bound to be asked and rehearse your answers beforehand. Commonly asked questions include 'What are your strengths and weaknesses?' and 'Why did your last contract end?' Remember, the interview is an opportunity to expand on your CV and portfolio, and convince the listener that you are the supplier who understands the client's needs more than any other candidate on the interview/pitch list.

5. Starting and finishing touches

Entering and leaving the interview, shake hands firmly. Then, and during the interview, make eye contact, when talking and always when listening. Ideally you want to establish an early rapport with the interviewer, so don't forget to use positive non-verbal communication - smiling, for example, initially then occasionally then at the end, is a must.

6. Body talks

As just mentioned, body language is crucial in forming impressions - DO NOT  fidget, fiddle with your hands, tap your fingers, chew gum or smoke. Sit upright, keep alert and look interested.

7. Have your 'need-to-know' points

Remember - an interview is a two-way process: not only is the interviewer assessing whether you are suitable for the job, but you too need to decide whether the job/contract on offer is fitting for you and your business. Identify your own information 'need to knows' - and leave the interview having found them out. For example, what is the nature of how the client wants to receive your product/service, or what must your service/skills achieve for their business - and how can you best deliver this objective? On your own private notepad of what to ask, you might write: Are there opportunities for me to improve my existing skills and/or develop new skills? Will the contract, directly or indirectly, let me increase my roster of services, or profit margin, in the future? How will I be expected to feedback my progress to the client? Answers you get in response often reveal the make-up, culture and structure of the client organisation, sometimes including how it uses and regards freelancers.

8. Don't be fazed

Speak clearly and confidently and don't allow yourself to be discouraged. Stay positive. Answer awkward, seemingly negative question, such as “What didn’t you like about your last contract?” or “What would your former client tell me are your weaknesses?” in a positive way, perhaps by pointing to the benefits of self learning, developing new skills and fine-tuning how you excel and how your business adds value. In doing this, don’t bad-mouth your previous clients or assignments, or be self-deprecating. If you're pushed to self-criticise, answer by identifying minor faults, but back them up with major evidence that you know the solution, while expressing your readiness to extend your abilities further in carrying out the contract.

Meanwhile, another notorious question "How do you deal with criticism?” can be answered by saying that you think it’s important to be challenged and given the opportunity to improve your skills, as well as hearing other people's insights in the workplace.

9. Sell, Sell, Sell

Constantly remind yourself that you have something to sell and focus on how you can make a positive contribution to the role, the project and to the client company as a whole. Recruiters have long encouraged freelancers to be business-professionals showing a commercial/sales understanding, not only specialists and definitely not generalists. On interview day, selling yourself as a one-person business should only stop being a priority, albeit one you execute subtly, once you have formally been offered the contract.

10. Final questions should be open

Towards the close of the pitch or interview, you should expect an invitation to ask final questions, though you won't necessarily be told that this opportunity will be the last exchange. The questions you ask should be open-ended to bring out more information than closed 'yes'/'no' questions. It's sometimes tempting at this final hurdle, but querying rates/pay, hours of work, or what expenses you might get, should be avoided. Concentrate on the nature of the role, its value to the organisation and the organisation as a whole. At this closing stage, you might also ask if there were any responses which you gave which they would like clarified.

11. Be genuine

No one likes a crawler! Don’t practice your answers so they sound like you’ve learned them by rote, show a measure of personality and individuality! Putting on a ‘perfect’ front will only give the impression that you are possibly deceitful and manipulative. Client companies know that freelancers are one-person business, with the associated resources, so don't carry on like you're a FTSE-100 firm. Also don't make out that you've got general skills that could help the client in lots of areas - freelancers are expected to have a specialism that fits into a department or project, not a solution for every problem which arises in that department or project!

12. Be cool

Your interviewer wants to see if you will fit in with their organisation or their client's organisation, even if you will be on-site only rarely or working remotely. Your ability to do the job is important, but so too is your task of presenting yourself as a suitable match with the end-user, and potentially their existing freelancers as well, particularly if you're applying for project work. You will convey this more effortlessly by trying not to be too clever. Don't tell lies, jokes, give evasive answers or pretend you know about something if you don't. Keep a hold of your temper throughout, don't get flustered, panic or criticise your former clients.

13. Replay the question

To avoid nerves talking you into a trap, when posed a question by the interviewer, ask yourself in your mind what the question was. The mental time this takes is between a quarter and half a second. Two things happen. Firstly it makes you look as though you are giving thoughtful answers (which you are), and are not rushed or flustered. Secondly, if the question is unclear, it allows you to pose a question of clarification, which can convey you as knowledgeable, while helping you to engage with the interviewer by showing that you are trying to fully understand what they would like to hear from you.

14. The sincerest form of flattery

At the concluding moments of the interview, try and subtly incorporate the language which the client used in the job advert - after all, it's their wording so you won't be saying anything they don't approve of! You need to have the role and its requirements memorised in the seconds prior to the interview, so you can mention or confirm the particulars if asked at the outset, but there's no harm mentioning them at the close as well.

15. DON’T:

  • Ask what the rate will be, it will arise later. Best to let the decision to hire be made and negotiate separately. If asked the question have your answer ready
  • Interrupt your interviewer, finish their sentence for them, argue unnecessarily or be defensive/aggressive in response to questions
  • Bad-mouth previous employers/colleagues/businesses
  • Lie or exaggerate – tell the truth, even if you have to describe a difficult situation or contract that ended badly. Do explain it delicately and as briefly as possible, assuming you have to
  • Chew, smoke, fidget, slouch or pick your nose! Sitting up too straight and rigid can look odd – so try to relax, but remain interested and alert
  • Stray from the question or subject – interviewers have to keep to a timeframe, and irrelevant tangents about your personal life, while perhaps giving a sense of your personality, may not impress or worse
  • Give long-winded answers. Showing you can think fast,be succinct and solve problems efficiently is far more useful than being able to talk at length.


Jul 15, 2010
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