Study: Words That Cost You The Job Interview

Study: Words That Cost You The Job Interview


If you want to cost yourself a job interview, just use words like “you”, “they”, “always” and “can’t”.  New research from Leadership IQ finds that interview answers rated poorly by hiring managers contain very different words than interview answers rated highly.  For example, bad interview answers use the word “you” 392% more than good interview answers, and “they” 90% more.  Bad interview answers also contain 104% more present tense verbs, 40% more adverbs, 92% more negative emotions, and 103% more absolutes. 

Using cutting-edge linguistic and textual analysis, Leadership IQ analyzed more than 20,000 actual interview answers to discover what separates the good ones from the bad ones.  What we discovered might surprise you.

Study Methodology

Study participants were 1,427 professionals who were asked to write answers to 15 open-ended interview questions as though they were applying for a job.  All answers were validated to insure they were of sufficient length and contained appropriate content (there were 20,572 total answers).  Then a panel of hiring managers and HR executives graded the answers to identify whether the applicant would likely be a great hire (aka a high performer), a poor hire (low performer) or somewhere in between.  Overall, 34% of the interview answers were identified as low performer answers, while 29% were identified as high performer answers.  These high and low performer answers were then subjected to a textual analysis which identified key differences in the grammar and linguistic patterns of high and low performer answers. 

Study Results

High performer answers contain 21% more “I” language  (e.g. I, me, or my) than low performer answers.

  • Talking about oneself (aka self-reference) is associated with taking ownership of a situation or experience. And by showing this ownership, “I” words can also convey that the candidate is being truthful. So saying “I did this” and “I accomplished/created that” indicate the candidate was close to the situation, really took the actions described, and takes ownership of the results.

High performer answers contain 65% more “we” language (e.g. we, us, our).

  • Similar to “I” language, “we” language is associated with a willingness to take ownership. And it can also indicate a willingness to share credit and work well with others.

 Low performer answers contain 392% more “you” language (e.g. you, your, you’ll) than high performer answers.

  • “You” language can signal someone who is not taking ownership of a situation or experience and is evidence of a psychological disassociation. High performer answers can indicate taking ownership with phrases like “I called the customer three times last week.” By contrast, notice how a low performer answer can avoid ownership by using “you” language, as in “You should always call the customer immediately.”  That doesn’t say they actually did call the customer, just that they believe the best practice would be to call.

Low performer answers contain 90% more “they” language (e.g. they, them, themselves).

  • Using third person pronouns like “they” or “them” is very similar to “you” language and can also indicate a lack of experience and ownership (g.Before someone calls the customer, they should check the call log”).

Low performer answers contain 40% more adverbs (e.g. “very”, “really”, “quickly”).

  • Insecurity, lack of experience, and/or trying to paint oneself in a better light can all trigger a need to embellish the facts. People often qualify their words with adverbs to ‘amp’ things up. So instead of sharing the details of a time the candidate had a brilliant idea, a low performer answer might instead say, “I was quickly coming up with great ideas.”

High performer answers contain 38% more past tense verbs.

  • High performers typically tell simple, focused stories that avoid distraction and detail the facts as they happened. This is logically evidenced in use of the past tense, for example: “I saw there was a problem and called the customer.

Low performer answers contain 104% more present tense verbs.

  • People who lack experience tend to avoid the past tense to describe what “they” actually did. Instead, they may describe a ‘past experience’ with a spun tale about what they are doing (present tense). For example: “When there is a problem it is best to call the customer.” 

Low performer answers contain 71% more future tense verbs.

  • Similar to the present tense language, a lack of experience about what they did may manifest as a future tense answer (g.I will call the customer when there’s a problem.”)

High performer answers contain 28% more words that describe positive emotions (e.g. “happy”, “thrilled”, “excited”).

  • High performers talk about being excited and happy more than low performers with statements like: “I was thrilled to help the customer.” However, the real difference with emotion is how infrequently high performers express negative emotions compared to low performers.

Low performer answers contain 92% more words that signal negative emotions (e.g. “angry”, “aggravated”, “afraid”, “pessimistic”, “unhappy”).

  • When a candidate openly discusses negative emotions, it seems to raise questions about why they couldn’t find a more positive resolution. Saying “I’m aggravated about that part of my job, but I’m pretty pessimistic about whether it’ll ever change” does not indicate a proactive, coachable and go-getter type of attitude (characteristics that interviewers often like).

Low performer answers contain 123% more negation (e.g. “no”, “can’t”, “couldn't”, “didn’t”).

  • It’s a cliché that hiring managers don’t want to hear the word “can’t,” but there is now evidence that the cliché is true. Tension, low emotional intelligence, negativity, or pessimism can be revealed through increased negation, for example “No, that didn’t happen at my last job because you couldn’t make those kinds of decisions.”

Low performer answers contain 103% more absolutes (e.g. “always”, “absolutely”, “unquestionably”).

  • Use of absolutes like “I always call the customer” and “I am unquestionably the best person on the team” can stem from insecurity, a need to show off, and/or black-and-white thinking and a lack of intellectual flexibility. When was the last time you experienced a situation that was “always” a certain way in the real world?

High performer answers were 23% longer than low performer answers.

  • Because high performers have more and better experience with the attitudes and skills interviewers seek, they have more to say in the interview. And that manifests in giving longer, more detailed answers.


There are so many good, highly-skilled candidates for every job that interviewers are looking for any way to distinguish between future high and low performers.  And the words that candidates use when answering interview questions are one big source of differentiation.

If candidates are afraid to talk about themselves and their past experiences (relying instead on “you,” “they,” and present/future tense verbs), interviewers could suspect that they don’t have the necessary experience (or worse, are lying).  When candidates use negative words like “can’t”, “couldn’t”, “angry”, “aggravated”, it can indicate a lack of self-control and an inability to positively resolve problems that arise.  And absolutes and adverbs can indicate insecurity and a need to show-off. 

Fortunately, just as our words can damage our interview performance, they can also enhance our performance.  Saying “I” and “we,” using past tense verbs, positive emotions and lengthening your answers doesn’t guarantee a job offer.  But it can make the interviewer more likely to put your application in the ‘potential high performer’ pile.

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