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Interview tips - managing those first sticky moments

Career expert John Lees, author of new book The Interview Expert, reveals the secrets of what happens in the opening moments of an interview.

The decisions that are really made in the opening moments

You will often hear that in a job interview a decision is made about you in the first 30 seconds. The way you dress, sound, and move are all taken as indicators of your job performance. Is that true?

Psychologists tell us that we make snap, unconscious judgements every time we encounter a new person. We make instantaneous assessments based on minimal amounts of information. A famous study by Professor Nalini Ambady at Harvard University asked observers to watch silent ten second videotapes of lecturers. Just in this very short extract, observers had no difficulty rating the personality traits of lecturers, and did so as accurately as students who had listened to lecturers for three terms.

What we learn from research is that interviewers don’t make a complete, decisive hiring decision in the first few seconds of an interview, however they do form certain important decisions around three pieces of very obvious information:

• Personability: An interviewer decides how personable you are, making an instinctive prediction about how easy you will be to get on with.
• Sociability: A decision is made about how open you are and how easy you are to talk to. Do you readily offer information and respond to questions? Do you seem like the kind of person who establishes good relationships quickly?
• Walk-in Appearance: Do you look and sound the part?

Subjective as it sounds, most interviewers form an initial view about your overall “fit”, largely based on how you are at interviews rather than the content of what you say. This happens largely in the “small talk” moments of the interview, which may happen when you are being walked into the interview room. Often opening questions are general ones about mutual connections or your personal interests. This is far more than simple chatter. Every response you make signals something important about how easy others will find it to work alongside you.

Getting a warm start matters. We are more likely to trust instincts when we feel happy – making the interviewer feel relaxed gives you a head start.  

Opening questions

One of the ways an interview can open is with the very broad question “tell us about yourself”. This apparently innocent and simple question is one of the toughest you will ever be asked during an interview. The difficulty is that you have no frame of reference. Should you talk about your history, your work experience, your goals, or your personality? The question is usually thrown in at the beginning of an interview (and may even be used to throw you off balance just a little).

The trap that too many candidates fall into is to give a long-winded answer that tries to summarise their complete work history. The main reason an interviewer asks this question is to get you talking. The second is to see if you can come up with a concise summary of the reasons you are in the interview room.

When it comes to your walk-in appearance, planning is much easier. Check out the dress codes of the organisation and try to look as if you already work there. Declutter – leave your coat, umbrella and bag in reception. Just take in a slim folder containing the documents you need, and you will look like an employee rather than a visitor.

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