How to Make the Most of Small Talk Before the Interview

by Sharon Elber

Small Talk Interview

It is pretty standard for interviewers to engage candidates in a little small talk before the formal interview starts. It is a great way to release some of the tension around one of the more nerve wracking experiences most of us will have to endure in our professional lives.

While hiring decisions are much more likely to be made based on your qualifications and ability to communicate them through your job application and the interview itself, the initial chit-chat phase can have an important impact on how you are perceived. It is part of that ephemeral “first impression” that can influence decision making in terms of assessing your fit for the organization.

1) Tips to Make the Most of Polite Conversation

– Research the Interviewer

Take some time to learn about the interviewer(s) on their professional social media profiles such as LinkedIn or bios published on the company website. There is a general understanding that personal information shared on such platforms should fit with a professional persona so there is the expectation these sites are fair game for pre-interview research.

However, avoid getting too personal by poking around on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter since inadvertently referencing anything from those pages is likely to come off as creepy and intrusive.

– How to Leverage Shared Interests

It is risky to raise personal interests on your own. However, you can be on the lookout for common passions that you may share if you are asked about them before, during, or after the interview. In other words, doing a little advance research may help you prepare relevant answers to small talk questions you may be asked. For example:

Interviewer (who you discovered is a fellow foodie from her LinkedIn profile): “How was your weekend?”
You: “Great! I finally made the time to take a cooking class at the Chef’s Academy and learned how to bake a souffle!”

– Expect to Be Nervous

It is perfectly normal to experience the jitters when walking into a job interview. Extroverts tend to manage the nerves of initiating conversations with new people better than introverts, but everyone experiences some anxiety when it comes to entering a situation when we know we are being evaluated and judged.

If you have a lot of anxiety about getting polite conversation started, you can make it a point to go out of your way to strike up polite conversations with folks you don’t know in public places like stores and restaurants. Practice smiling naturally and holding eye contact while engaging in short conversations with strangers.

– Company News and Events

Hopefully you have done some basic research on the company before even applying for the job. This probably involved looking on the company website, blog, or in the local press about recent events, community outreach programs, or awards.

These are excellent topics to churn into a little small talk as a way to highlight your preparedness and shared interest in the company’s core values.

For example: “I was excited to learn that this company is committed to helping pet overpopulation by sponsoring the adopt-a-thon last weekend. I rescued my Golden Retriever from the shelter last year.”

– Body Language

Your nonverbal communication can tell a skilled interviewer more about you than your words. Make sure that your small talk includes plenty of eye contact, smiles, and meaningful gestures when appropriate. Affirm that you are an engaged listener by nodding at various points during the conversation.

Try to avoid closed gestures such as holding your day planner tightly against your chest, putting your hands in your pockets, fidgeting, or crossing your arms. Likewise, skip overly intimidating “dominance” posturing such as wide stances, standing too close, or aggressive hand gestures.

This is a moment to be perceived as a potential team member who plays well with others. The most critical information a responsible interviewer is likely to glean from pre-interview chit-chat is to gauge if your personality is a good fit for the company culture and people you will be working with directly.

– Ask Open-Ended Questions

The easiest and lowest risk way to start a conversation is to ask an open-ended question. That is, a question that does not have a simple yes, no, or one-word answer. People usually like talking about themselves and once the interview starts, it’s likely to be all about you.

Your goal here is to show an interest in the company itself, the interviewer, the industry sector of the company, or the location (especially helpful if you are interviewing away from your home town).

These are the kinds of ice-breaker questions you can prepare in advance which can help take the pressure off:

  • “This town must get a lot of tourism in the summertime, but what I want to know is what restaurants are the best according to the locals. What’s your favorite spot for great Italian food?”
  • “I noticed from your company profile that you have been working with this company for almost 15 years. What is it about this company that has inspired such loyalty?”
  • Or, just keep it simple: “Did you have a chance to get out and enjoy the fantastic weather we had this weekend?”

– Be a Good Listener

Small talk isn’t just an opportunity to talk, it is also a chance to show you know how to listen. You want to demonstrate that you are interested in what the other person has to say and follow up with a relevant comment, very brief anecdote, or question.

Your goal is not to dominate the conversation and make it all about you—that kind of behavior can make you look arrogant which is not going to help you be perceived as a good team player.

– Be Genuine

This is the most important thing about small talk with your (fingers crossed) future employer. If you are working too hard to be “perfect” at small talk, then chances are, you will come off as insincere, which is definitely not the desired effect.

Relax and don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. After all, you are hoping to establish a natural and real connection between one human being and another. Be yourself and let the chemistry happen on its own rather than trying to force it.

2) Small Talk Topics to Avoid

– Complaints

One common feature of small talk in general is to casually complain about things such as the weather or traffic. While these can be great conversation starters with people you already have a rapport with, this kind of ice-breaker runs the risk of making you look like a whiner—definitely not the first impression you want to make.

Keep the tone positive, regardless of the subject you are chatting about.

– Controversial Issues

Religion and politics are the obvious subjects to avoid here. Enough said.

Jokes, no matter how innocuous they seem to you, usually contain some element that has the potential to be offensive. Just save the comedy routine for folks that you have already developed a relationship with rather than risk a poor first impression at a job interview.

– Family Situation

Asking about someone else’s family or enthusiastically volunteering details about your own is generally a bad idea. The risks greatly outweigh the possible benefits. Many people choose to keep their personal lives separate from work. Pressing them for information can be an embarrassing breach of their work/life boundaries.

In addition, by volunteering information about your own family situation, you are opening the door to negative judgements about your potential performance as an employee. Legal or not, such bias can and does impact the hiring process.

– Compliments on Appearance

If you have done some research and want to congratulate someone on a recent award or make a positive comment about a project that got some great press, then go for it. Noticing someone’s accomplishments and validating them is a great ice-breaker.

However, stay away from commenting on people’s appearance. No matter how well intentioned you are, telling someone that you like their hair, perfume, clothing, or any other aspect of their outward appearance runs the risk of coming off as shallow, and in some cases, offensive. Just don’t do it.

3) Conclusion: Make Pre-Interview Small Talk Work for You

Remember, small talk is a tiny part of the hiring process and it isn’t worth a great deal of time fretting over. A little preparation in the event you are handed a golden opportunity to reveal a shared passion with the interviewer is worth about 20 minutes of prep time.

Instead, focus your energy on being genuine, personable, polite, and attentive during the inevitable pre-interview chit-chat. It is a chance to showcase that you are going to be a value-added member of a dynamic team once you land that job.

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