3 Interview Lessons from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

3 Interview Lessons from Harper Lee_ Blog Title

I have always loved to read and because of that, I’ve gained invaluable knowledge and experience through the lives and stories of the characters in books. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Harper Lee, passed away recently. Her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is an American classic, and her passing caused me to reflect on the impact of this book. In doing so, I found several lessons we can apply to our modern day interviews.

When you read, you immerse yourself in a story. Most of us have had the experience of becoming so absorbed in a book that we become emotionally invested. Perhaps the ending leaves us wanting more, feeling happy or fulfilled, or satisfied that the good guys won.

What if we approached interviewing as storytelling?

When you approach an interview as an unfolding story, you are able to learn more relevant and valuable information about your candidates. You will know whether your candidate’s story is a good match for your story. Harper Lee has left us some important lessons which can be applied to our interview stories.

  1. Make It About Them

Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.1

Great candidates are interested in knowing how your company can satisfy their needs or solve their pain. When we interview, we often fall into the trap of telling candidates our story and focusing on what we think they want to know. In the business world, you can’t buy loyalty and hard work with pizza parties and happy hours. Have you ever heard someone say they love their job because of pizza? We forget that purpose of the interview is to find out if our stories are in sync.

I often see interviewers begin like this:

We are the leading widget manufacturer in North America. We’ve been in business for over 50 years and have offices in … We’ve won lots of awards … Our dedicated, passionate employees …

This is pretty general information about the history of the company and its accomplishments. It’s also boring. When you ask someone about their job, are any of these things in their answer?

Notice the difference when you make it about their interests and what they want or need to solve their pain.

We don’t waste time in endless meetings that go nowhere. We bring together smart people on interdisciplinary teams to collaborate to make amazing things happen. We don’t waste time on excuses; we are too busy working together developing solutions that provide clean water to people everywhere.

This addresses the things great candidates want to know. They are looking for how our story matches theirs. They want to learn about the work they’ll be doing, our expectations, the results they’ll achieve, and why their work matters.

  1. Beware the Adjective

2Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.

In searching for the truth, Scout found it difficult to find the truth in what she heard. We experience this same difficulty during interviews. We listen to candidates answer our questions and wonder where the truth is. Most candidates have rehearsed answers to common questions and try to dazzle us with a lot of jargon and buzzwords, while giving us little substance. When you strip away all the jargon and buzzwords, do you have an answer? Or do you have only words that lack substance?

A common interview question is “tell me about your weaknesses.” An example of an answer that lacks substance might be:

I work too hard and put in long hours to get my job done. Sometimes I have to be told to go home.

Would you believe this answer? Probably not. This is a statement, not a story. Instead, ask an Insightful Interview™ question and listen to the story revealed by the words in this question and answer:

Could you tell me about a time when you lacked knowledge or resources to complete a task?

I had a new client with a brand new product I’d never worked with before. I had to figure out how to process their transcripts in a shorter than normal time frame. I found another method to get the audio file faster, created a process that allowed a team of people to work on it in a rotating fashion so that more than one person could work on it at a time, and I had it transcribed, edited, and perfected, with no mistakes and presented to the client on time.

This is a story with substance. You learned that this candidate is creative, can solve complex problems, works independently, collaborates with team members, focuses on the customer, and is committed to quality. This story is filled with rich details. If you would like a more in-depth analysis of this question, you can download it here.

  1. Beware of Hidden Bias

People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.3

Judge Taylor said this in declining a request to clear women and children from his courtroom. Atticus had his children in the courtroom every day because he wanted them to see what was going on and to know that Tom was innocent. Most of the townspeople came to see that Tom was guilty.

When you interview people for your business, look and listen not only for what you want and don’t want, but also for your own biases. We all have unconscious biases formed as we grow up. We learn them from parents, teachers, community leaders, and friends. We collect these experiences as we go through life and form opinions based on our individual experiences.

I hated Brussels sprouts until I was forced to eat them in a social situation and found that when properly prepared, they’re delicious. Because I’d never had properly prepared Brussels sprouts, I decided that they were not for me. I’d been missing out on this healthy food for years because of my bias.

In business, we have preconceived ideas about people. We hear all the time that Millennials are entitled, lazy, and don’t have a good work ethic. We Baby Boomers sit back and feel superior because we are hard workers who understand we have to work our way up the ranks. Would you be surprised to know that the example answer to the question, “what are your weaknesses” came from a Baby Boomer? The story told in answer to the question about lacking knowledge and skill came from a Millennial.


These three lessons will transform your interviews from a struggle to uncover the truth about your candidates to confidence in your hiring decisions. We all have unique wants and needs, and successful companies are experts at identifying the match between what they need and what great candidates want. Hiring the right people is really about understanding what’s important to your candidates, what they want, and what they don’t want. When we make the interview about our candidate’s story and ask Insightful Interview™ questions, we uncover their story and learn whether it supports ours. When we are aware of our biases, we open the doors for candidates we may not otherwise have considered.

Which quote resonates most with you? I’ll be Blabbing about this on March 2 at 11:00 a.m. EST. Join me! Your insights may be just what someone else needs to hear.