They say timing is the secret to comedy, but it’s also one of the secrets of good job interview technique.

Of course you can never know exactly what questions you will be asked and you should take the time necessary to answer them as fully as possible, whatever they may be. However, there are some good rules of thumb for both conciseness and verbosity that all of us should remember.

How short is too short?

  • One word is too short, unless you are clearly getting a yes-or-no question. Can you lift 50 pounds? Yes. Do you mind working on weekends? No.
  • If you haven’t actually answered the question, you haven’t said enough. Make sure you are practicing active listening during the question so that you know what the meat in the answer will be. It’s easy to lose track of the point of the question if you are planning your answer during it.
  • A moment of silence when you’re done is okay. It doesn’t mean you haven’t said enough—it means they were really listening, which is excellent. Don’t be tempted to fill the silence with more if you have answered the question.

How long is too long?

  • You have between 30 and 90 seconds of good listening time from your interviewer. Past there, you had better be telling a pretty compelling story or they will tune out and get ready to ask the next question.
  • If your interviewer breaks eye contact with you, you have probably lost their attention. Wrap it up.
  • If you think you might be going on too long, you can say something like, “I could tell you more about it, but I had better stop here.” They will be glad that you were aware of how long your answer was and either be happy to move on or ask you for more of your story. Both of those are good.

The real secret to great job interviews is practice, and the length of your answers can be planned and rehearsed with a trusted friend or colleague. Practice enough to get a good feel for when you have reached that magic 90-second mark and you will never see an interviewer check her watch again.

Wendy Stackhouse, Consultant for Artisan Creative