Nigel Lindsell, a 53-year-old sales account manager, found that the odds were stacked against him when he was made redundant in 2008. With his wife seriously ill, it was nine months before he was able to start searching for a new job, by which time the recession was in full swing and his age was a further disadvantage. 'I went to a succession of recruitment agencies, which seemed to be run by 25- to 30-year-olds for their own age group, and although I was put forward for a number of interviews, it felt as though I was there to make up the numbers,' says Lindsell. 'Although there are laws against age discrimination, I felt I wasn't being given fair consideration.'
He decided to take control of the situation. 'I realised that I had to carve out a job for myself, and to do that I had to make myself outstandingly better than the other candidates,' he says.
In his previous position, Lindsell had at times been responsible himself for recruiting people, but he found it hard to be on the other side of the table. 'As an employer, it's easy to know what you want, but when I was asked, "Tell me a bit about yourself", it threw me.'
Following a recommendation, he went to see London-based interview coach Margaret Buj. 'Margaret helped me put structure into my interview technique,' he says. 'She showed me how to talk about myself in a concise way that left an impact. I know I'm good at this job, but the challenge was to demonstrate it.'
For Lindsell, the story had a happy ending: after narrowly missing out in his next interview with a Swiss company, he was offered a senior position by a German manufacturer of laminate flooring. 'I understand I was up against 200 or so other people, including a dozen strong candidates,' he says. 'To say I was lifted by the coaching would be an understatement. I was totally elevated psychologically - I felt very good about myself.'
Buj is just one practitioner in a small but growing sector devoted to giving candidates that all-important edge over competitors in job interviews. Britain may be close to pulling out of recession, but unemployment figures - at a 12-year high of 2.5 million last October - are expected to continue rising for months. In many sectors, few jobs are available and the competition is tough for any on offer. 'A year and a half ago, I was seeing people who needed a lot of work on their interview technique,' says Buj. 'Now, the people I'm seeing are quite good; their technique isn't bad, but there is just so much competition out there.'
Not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of those seeing a silver lining in the overall cloud of unemployment. Cheltenham-based Evolutions UK runs an interview training course called The Edge, which is aimed at new graduates and is offered at various locations around the country. 'It can be a battle even to get invited for interview for your dream job,' intones the narrator on its video over a chilling soundtrack. 'So when you get there, it is crucial that you stand out from the crowd.'
The cost of the two-day course (with personal coaching on top of the seminars) is £995. 'Our target market is parents of graduates who are unemployed,' explains David Baker, Evolutions' chairman. 'They might have spent up to £300,000 educating their sons and daughters in the independent sector, so another £1,000 or so to help them get that first job is an investment well worth making.'
At the other end of the price spectrum, the UK Interview Academy (established 2009) offers seminars on selling yourself at interview, in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff, for just £75 a shot. Another outfit, Interview Skills Consulting, coaches 4,000 a year on getting through their interview, at £199 a session.
There are also options for those who don't want to pay for face-to-face coaching. For £59.95, you can get a year's subscription to InterviewGold, an online interview skills training course that is the brainchild of former banker Joe McDermott. 'I was made redundant in 2005 after 15 years in banking, and I decided I wanted some help with interviews,' he says. 'I could buy a book from Amazon or get some coaching, but I felt there was a need for something that was mid-range and interactive.'
Launched in 2006, InterviewGold has more than 10,000 subscribers; in the latest version, you can use a webcam to record yourself answering the interview questions and then analyse your own performance at leisure.
DVDs are another self-help option. The Interview Experts series, by Cavendish Films, makes the bold promise: 'Leading managing directors, recruitment consultants and headhunters reveal for the first time the secrets of successful job interviews... ' And all for £19.95.
Stephen Conway, who made the films, previously worked as a recruitment consultant, and over many years compiled a thick dossier of intelligence from line managers and personnel directors about why they chose particular candidates at interview. 'I started to coach candi- dates before their interview, and I found it made a huge difference,' he says. 'Those who came to me for coaching got four times as many job offers.' When he left recruitment to set up his film company, he decided to translate the dossier into a DVD. He has sold about 3,000 copies since it was launched 18 months ago.
There's a welter of free advice and assistance out there for those who are too tight - or impecunious - to invest in improving their interview technique. Check out YouTube or visit www.jobsite.co.uk/bemyinterviewer, where you can subject yourself to an interrogation from a gallery of luminaries including Duncan Bannatyne or The Apprentice's Ruth Badger. (The Badger: 'Here's a bottle of water; sell it to me.')
And social networking is also raising its head in recruitment's version of the viva voce. On www.whatwilltheyask.co.uk, a website set up by a group of economics graduates at the University of Bristol, you can pick a sector and view actual questions recently posed by named employers, as posted by fellow job-hunters.
PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG may not be thrilled to see their clever questions for graduate trainees advertised to all and sundry in a job candidate's crib-sheet. We can expect to see more of this subversive approach to the interview, with Generation Y-ers less ready to accept the role of applicant as supplicant, and seeing an interview as a two-way conversation.
And what's so special about the interview, anyway? There are several steps in the process of finding a job, and the interview is only one of them. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of people out there who will help you to write a CV. Harry Freedman, founder of outplacement specialists Career Energy and author of the book How to Get a Job in a Recession believes strongly that the most important single thing that job-hunters can do in a downturn is to 'establish contacts and find opportunities' through networking and other approaches.
But the interview is nearly always the moment of truth. At the very least, it's a test to pass, and it offers a one-off opportunity to sell yourself in person and outshine the competition.
The reasons people choose to seek help with interviews are varied. Says Liz Banks, whose company Skillstudio partners with jobs website Monster: 'A lot of the people who come to us are newly qualified graduates who've never done interviews before. Then there are others who've been made redundant and simply haven't done one for a very long time. They may be an expert in their field, but they are not very good at selling themselves.'
Much of what coaches and trainers impart is a combination of presentation and preparation. Competency-based interviews, where the interviewee is required to talk about how they would react in specific situations, have become more prevalent in recent years. 'Interviewers are usually looking for particular competencies,' says Buj, 'but it's not enough just to say you can do that. You must be prepared to back up what you say with specific examples.'
And you can improve the way you talk about yourself.
'The Star technique - situation, task, action, results - is very effective,' says Freedman. 'It really helps you to think on your feet.'
Another area for improvement is digression. Too many people waffle, says Banks, particularly when confronted with an open-ended question such as 'Tell me something about yourself'. You have to learn to boil your response down to concise, relevant information, and then practise it over and again.
Conway, though, believes personal chemistry is key to interview success. 'I advise people when they do their research about the employer to look at the style and language they use. One of the things you learn in neuro-linguistic programming is how to build rapport, and in an interview it's important that you establish common ground quickly and make them feel that you'll fit in. It's all about relationships.'
And then there are issues of body language and personal presentation. 'There are the people who walk into the room, shake hands limply and mumble, look at the floor, make no eye contact,' says Banks. 'They don't sound convincing, or enthusiastic about what they're saying.' Some never smile, others sit with a fixed grin; both need to be corrected.
All this help available to job interviewees raises the question of whether it is making it easier or harder for interviewers to identify the best candidate. Like a generation of schoolchildren who've been coached in passing exams, is a candidate really going to be better at the job simply because they know how to handle the interview? This question is further complicated by the fact that many of those who train interviewees are also training the interviewer. So it's possible to envisage a situation where those on either side of the table have been prepared by the same person.
For Conway, coaching - in whatever form - benefits both sides. 'Actually, as an interviewer, what you really want to see is everybody at their best, because then it's a level playing field and you can see who really is best,' he says. 'And we've all been in situations where we wanted to kick ourselves for not preparing properly.'
The real question, he says, is whether anybody can afford not to invest time and money to ensure that they perform at their optimum in interview, especially knowing that rival candidates will probably have done so. 'In this day and age, you would be crazy not to.'
QUESTION TIME - THE ONES TO PREPARE FOR
'Tell me about yourself.'
There's no set answer to this one, but it's a fair bet that the interviewer does not want to know about your cycling proficiency test aged seven, or where you went on holiday at Easter. This is an opportunity to paint a picture that positions you as the ideal candidate; mention anything that you would like to be asked more about.
'Why do you want to work here?'
This question is an invitation to demonstrate that you've thought about different employers, and you've done your research on this organisation. If you can relate it to your own experience, all the better ('I've always used your products and I think they're fabulous'); and explain how this move fits into your career.
'Why did you leave your previous job?'
However tempting, don't launch into a slag-fest against your erstwhile employer. 'If you say you left this or that job because your employers didn't live up to your expectations, I will think you can't be satisfied and there's nothing I can do to make you a good employee,' says Duncan Bannatyne on jobsite.co.uk's 'Be my Interviewer'.
'What is your greatest weakness?'
Don't say 'chocolate biscuits'. Unless the interviewer has a DVD set of The Office on view, they're unlikely to appreciate the joke. Nor, if you're after an accountancy role, should you say 'working with numbers'. Boringly, identify something fairly innocuous and stress the steps you've taken to remedy this shortcoming.
'How do you respond to criticism?'
This has a simple answer: 'I use criticism as feedback.' Talk about how you listen to it and learn from it, and you'll be ticking the right boxes. Tell the interviewer that you give as good as you get and they'll be rapidly downgrading your prospects.