"My gosh, Liz," said my friend Kortney, "I'm six feet off the ground." "What's the story, Kort?" I asked, and she said "I just came from the greatest job interview ever. The manager and I really connected. He loved my thinking and vice versa. It was like interview nirvana."
"This is magnificent news!" I said. "Let's write a thank-you letter right now. We want to imprint a huge KORTNEY message in this guy's mind."
"Imprint?" she asked. "This manager and I are tight. We solved half the world's problems in a two-hour interview. I'm sure I'm getting the job."
Kortney waited a week and heard nothing. She started to get antsy. On the 10th day after her interview -- the conversation she had left with the boss' words "I can't wait to talk again" ringing in her ears -- she called the guy. He picked up the phone. She told me later, "I got the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach as we talked and I realized he had no idea who I was."
There's a happy ending -- Kortney got back on track with the manager, and is moving through the process now. The incident jarred her into a realization she'd always understood deep down, but hadn't thought about consciously before: namely, the realization that people are goldfish. Their minds are like steel traps sometimes, and like sieves the rest of the time.
The same guy who spent a rapt two hours with Kortney completely forgot her name, her story, and her amazing problem-solving skills just a few days later. Let's be easy on the guy: he had plenty of other fish to fry. Undoubtedly, he left the interview thinking Kortney was a terrific candidate, but the next day he met someone else, and then someone else after that. Too much data in too little time creates overload conditions, and when that happens, all bets are off.
I'm looking at a hoodie right now. It's draped over the back of my chair. I bought it last year at Target, for my eight-year-old. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it; it's a standard kid's hoodie. I remember when I bought it. My 17-year-old daughter was with me. "Look at that hoodie," I said to her that day. "Your brother would love that." Target had just brought in some new Spring merchandise, and my son's hoodie on the rack looked like something I couldn't live without. The colors were bright, and different from the colors in the store at my last visit -- Target had changed its lineup of Spring fashions. What fun! A year later, it looks like just another hoodie to me.
"Mom, you are truly invertebrate," scolded my daughter. "Look! Shiny colors! All Target has to do is put some bright-colored thing on the rack, and my mom throws it into her cart."
"Don't hate," I said, and snapped up some irresistible chili-red bath towels. People are limbic nerves wrapped in frontal-lobe's clothing, and the sooner we realize it, the better. That hiring manager didn't make a conscious decision to wipe all traces of Kortney's existence from his mind. He just forgot.
If we realize that the people who meet us and even brainstorm with us in the fast-paced interview pipeline are all but certain to forget us shockingly quickly, we won't get affronted when the inevitable failure-of-recollection takes place. We can build it into our planning. It's no big deal to be forgotten, as long as you're ready for it and can adjust accordingly.
It happens to all of us. I found one of my dearest summer-camp-mates on Facebook, and sent her a friend request. "Did we go to camp together?" she asked in reply. She couldn't remember me. We slept in the same cabin with six other girls for five years running. My name is the same as it was then. That's okay. I withdrew. A year from now, she's likely to write "Say, did we go to camp together?" At times I struggle to put names to my own children, so how could I blame my old friend for a little memory lapse?
In a job interview situation, we can't assume that a great interview will lead to a job offer. We have to stay top-of-mind for a hiring manager. In a thank-you letter, the very first thing we must do is bring ourselves back to mind for the recipient. We do that by mentioning a specific conversation the two of us had (about model cars, or Beyonce's baby, or who knows what). I've heard hiring managers confess "I just spent twenty minutes talking with a brilliant applicant, one of the four people I met last Friday. The whole time we talked, I was trying to remember which guy it was. He told me his name when he called, and I had his resume in front of me -- but I couldn't get the face back, or the guy in general. It was awful!"
That unfortunate candidate spent twenty minutes on the phone, certain he was winning big points for his sparkling observations on the hiring manager's issues. But he got no bounce from that pithy conversation, because the hiring manager couldn't match the guy on the phone with the memory of a person he'd met the week before. It's easy to overlook the fact that until the manager has you firmly back in mind (your face, your voice, and your back story) you can't advance in the selection pipeline. You can't even make points for brilliant observations on the telephone.
Don't take a hiring manager's memory for granted. Keep your brand and story front and center in every interaction. Maybe the hiring manager made a comment about you at some point, or maybe you've noticed that he thinks of you in a certain way ("the ex-Navy guy" or "the guy with the supply chain background," for instance). If so, use that. When you write to the hiring manager at any point in the selection process, start with "Dave Smith here -- the Navy guy." You'd be amazed how that quick descriptor cuts through the fog that plagues every overstressed hiring manager.
Seeing yourself through another person's eyes and helping the other person snap you back into focus isn't just useful in job-hunting. It's good training for lots of situations. As long as we're living among goldfish disguised as humans, we may as well get used to communicating the way (or at least we've always imagined) our fishtank-dwelling fellow creatures do.