How to maximise the first five minutes of your interview

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The first few moments of your interview can have a decisive impact on how well the rest of it goes. Here’s how to start strong – together with some cautionary tales of what not to do from real interviewers.

1. Remember the interview starts as soon as you leave the house

The interview starts long before you shake hands and sit down around the table. You never know who you might bump into as you get off your bus or train, or enter the company’s building – for all you know, your interviewer could be in the same coffee-bar queue as you. So make sure you project a friendly, confident, professional air from the moment you set off. 

Doubtless you’ll have made sure you arrive early. Give yourself time to have a comfort break and make sure you’re hydrated. Make conversation with the receptionist, switch off your phone and take in your surroundings – you might notice something that will make a useful small-talk topic later. Don’t try and cram in any last-minute facts – you want to come across as calm and organised, not flustered and under-prepared.  

What not to do:

‘I once heard someone standing outside our building, smoking furiously and complaining loudly on their phone about the early start time of their meeting and wondering aloud why they were even there. When I got to my next interview, I realised to my dismay the noisy moaner was my next candidate! Not a great start.’   

2. Treat everyone you meet as your interviewer 

Make sure that you’re polite and friendly to everyone you come across in the interview process. From greeting the receptionist, to the people you share a lift with, to walking through an open-plan office to reach your meeting-room. These are all touchpoints with your potential future employer, and co-workers will often share their impressions of visitors afterwards, so you want everyone who comes into contact with you to see you in as positive a light as possible.  

What not to do:

‘I like to make a point of coming down to greet candidates in person. On one occasion, a candidate assumed I was an assistant, treated me in a very offhand way and rather rudely asked me to get them a drink. They got quite a shock when they saw I was heading up the interview panel! But what most disappointed me was the idea that it’s appropriate to treat staff of any level in such a way.’ 

3. Create a strong first impression

First impressions count, and non-verbal cues matter even more than verbal ones. So in those first few minutes, it’s all about smiling confidently, shaking hands firmly, making eye contact and generally looking as if you’re glad to be there and you want the job. Lean in slightly, widen your eyebrows slightly, and wait to be invited to sit down. In everything you do, project an attitude of energy, enthusiasm and interest.  

Clothes-wise, try to match your dress style to that of the company you’re meeting. You should be able to get a good idea of the company’s typical dress code through its website and social media output, especially any content about its working culture, and your recruiter can advise you too. You want to project some personality and charisma, but you also want to come across as a good fit, so if in doubt always err on the formal side. 

As part of your interview preparation, it’s a good idea to think ahead to some likely topics that might come up, so as to help keep the conversation flowing smoothly. The key is to come up with topics where you have a shared interest, so that you’re able to both ask and answer credible questions. 

What not to do:

‘One candidate I interviewed asked for a glass of water while they waited. It was icy-cold and they must have spilled it just before we met, so my first impression was a very damp, chilly handshake. So always hold your drink in your left hand!’  

4. Be ready for the small talk 

Getting the small talk right (or wrong) can have big consequences. It’s a way for people to build rapport and affinity, and start to generate that elusive, intangible quality of ‘chemistry’ that characterises all effective business relationships. 

So as part of your interview preparation, it’s a good idea to think ahead to some likely topics that might come up, so as to help keep the conversation flowing smoothly. The key is to come up with topics where you have a shared interest, so that you’re able to both ask and answer credible questions.   

For example, if you see a picture of your interviewer’s family, perhaps you could ask about them – and be ready with a family anecdote of your own. Or if you’re a sports fan and you spot signs that your interviewer is too, perhaps you could ask a suitable question that you’ve also got an interesting answer to (‘Do you ever get to the matches?’ ‘So who’s going to win the Cup this year?’ etc). 

Think, too, about topical themes. For example, has your potential employer been in the news recently? Or could you ask about the potential impact on the company of a recent development, such as falling share prices or a serious malware attack?  In each case, make sure you have an interesting thought of your own to contribute too.   

What not to do:

‘One candidate I interviewed recently asked me a non-stop string of questions about my family, the job, the company, things in the news – all sorts of things. But he didn’t really have much to say himself and he didn’t really wait to hear my answer before asking the next question, so he just came across as rather anxious and scattered.’ 

5. Be on message from the outset 

Politicians coached in handling the media are always advised to have a maximum of three key messages to get across, which they should stick to and repeat throughout any interview. 

Similarly, it’s a good idea to have two or three key points that you want to make about what you have to offer and what you’re looking for – for example, ‘I’m ready for the challenge of managing a team’, ‘I combine compliance experience with technical expertise’, ‘in my career, I’ve developed an extensive digital transformation skillset’. 

These are the three key points that you want your interviewer to remember about you. So try and work them in naturally whenever you can, even in the first few minutes. It’s also important to have a ready answer for some of the most common questions that come up early on – such as ‘Tell me why you want this job’ and ‘What’s your understanding of what this job involves?’ 

What not to do:

‘I always start by asking people to explain what our business does. This deceptively simple question floors lots of people – it’s amazing how many people struggle with it, perhaps because they’re attending several interviews in a row and haven’t made the time to do much research. But if you don’t come across as having a firm grasp of the company and why it’s hiring, the interviewer can only conclude that you’re not really that bothered about the job.’  

For more in-depth career advice, click here or contact us for a confidential discussion.

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