My husband, John, is a natural at making small talk. He can make conversation easily with anyone, anytime, in any environment. Within seconds, he uncovers something – a place, an interest, a person – that he has in common with whoever he is speaking with, and their conversation is off and running. He can do it with your 94-year old grandmother, your 5-year-old nephew, or your boss. It’s a very likable thing. I wish I could do it. The few times I have tried, it has been an awkward fail (“Oh, you’re from Wisconsin? I think I have a friend whose son went to school somewhere in Wisconsin, not exactly sure which school…”)
The ability to make easy small talk and find quick commonalities is a great talent, but it is not actually essential to being likable in an interview (unless it’s an interview for a position where those traits are required skills – such as a sales job). The first and most important of my job interview tips is this: Don’t be unlikable. If small talk does not come easily to you, you may not score those extra-credit likability points, but it does not make you unlikable.
Are you likable? There are four key pillars of likability in an interview. Check out the common pitfalls in each area to ensure that you don’t have a likability problem.
1. Be positive.
Failing to stay positive is a common interview pitfall. A negative attitude is highly unlikable. No one wants to hire someone they believe will bring negativity into the workplace. Some interview questions are specifically designed to elicit negativity so that the interviewers can screen out candidates who fail to stay positive. Be careful not to make these common mistakes:
Never say anything negative about yourself. An interview is no place for self-deprecating humor. Don’t give them information about your weaknesses, flaws, and mistakes unless you are asked to do so. If it appears that you don’t believe in yourself, they won’t believe in you, either.
Never blame anyone else for a failure or mistake. “Tell me about a mistake or failure” is a very common interview question, and it is often asked to determine a job candidate’s willingness to be accountable and accept responsibility. If you blame someone else for the situation, you appear as someone who will likely get defensive when things go awry. Employers want employees who are willing to grow and learn, who welcome constructive feedback and don’t get defensive when asked to do better. So tell them about a mistake or failure that you can own 100% – and then tell them what you learned from the experience and the actions you’ve taken to grow and improve since then. Frame your mistakes and failures as welcome opportunities for learning and growth.
Never complain or say anything negative about anyone who was on the same payroll as you. You did not have a horrible boss. Or a team member that was a waste of space. You may have had a boss whose leadership style required you to shift your communication style. You may have had a conflict with a team member that you used your strong interpersonal skills to resolve. You can, however, talk about having had a difficult customer – as long as you can explain how you made the customer happy.
2. Be authentic.
Authenticity is likable. The inverse of that truth, however, is the more important concept for likability during interviews: inauthenticity is extremely unlikable. And there are, unfortunately, many ways to appear inauthentic in an interview. Here are a few tips to staying real:
Don’t memorize answers. Even if you were a theater major, it’s still going to sound like you are reciting instead of talking. Memorized answers transform a conversation into a presentation. (For more information about how to prepare answers without memorizing them, see my article https://impressiveinterviewing.com/500-interview-answers/).
Speak like a human, not a job description. Use real words, not jargon. Instead of “I have strong interpersonal communication skills”, try, ”I‘m the kind of person who can get along with anybody.” Instead of “I am detail-oriented”, try “I am all about the details.” You can speak both professionally AND personably.
Converse, don’t perform. Being in a conversation means listening well, and speaking in response. If you jump right in with a canned answer to a question, you risk appearing non-responsive to the nuance of the question. Listen to the question, consider your answer and breathe before you speak.
3. Be enthusiastic
Nobody wants to hire someone that doesn’t seem to really want the job. It is crucial to show your interest in the job, yet you do not want to seem desperate. How can you let them know how much you want this job without groveling?
Do deep target research. This is the #1 most effective way to show your interest in the job. Learn everything you can about the company. When you demonstrate your knowledge during the interview, they will know that you cared enough to take the time to thoroughly prepare. Conversely, no matter how well you do answering questions about yourself, if you don’t know anything about the company, it shows a distinct lack of interest. Your questions for them should reflect that you have done your research homework thoroughly. (For more information about how to research a company, see my article https://impressiveinterviewing.com/researching-your-target/).
Turn your nerves into excitement. You’re nervous. And you are probably worried about seeming nervous. What if your nerves cause you to stammer, or say “uh”, or lose the perfect word you meant to use? It’s okay. It’s okay to be nervous because being nervous means you care about the opportunity. And that’s a good thing, because nobody wants to hire somebody who doesn’t care whether or not they get the job.
Here’s my easy answer to what to do about interview nerves: embrace them. Your nerves show that you appreciate the opportunity enough to care about your performance. When your nerves cause your brain to freeze or your mouth to miss a step: breathe, smile, and say, “I apologize – I’m just so excited for this opportunity. Would it be okay to take a moment to gather my thoughts?”
Follow-up properly. Send an immediate note thanking them for the opportunity to interview, and follow any instructions they have given you about next steps. Failure to do so implies a lack of enthusiasm for the position. (For tips about how to follow up after the interview, see https://impressiveinterviewing.com/follow-up-after-interview/).
4. Be respectful.
Acting in a respectful manner seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often a perceived lack of basic respect during an interview causes the interviewer to eliminate the candidate from consideration. Demonstrating respect is about both what you should do as well as what you shouldn’t do. Here is the breakdown:
Dress appropriately. Research what standard professional dress is for the industry and the company. Dress as they would on their most formal day, to show deference and respect. (See my article https://impressiveinterviewing.com/interview-attire/ for more tips on dressing for success).
Speak courteously and politely to everybody you encounter. This includes the parking attendant, the stranger in the elevator, the receptionist, the other people in the waiting area and, of course, anyone you are introduced to. Never complain to anyone, or show your impatience, even if they keep you waiting in a hall for 45 minutes past your scheduled interview time.
Use proper forms of address. This is a tricky one, because “proper” depends on industry and geography. Calling someone by their first name may be acceptable in one company, but considered disrespectful in another. Same with addressing someone as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. In Alabama, those are customary forms of respectful address. In New York City, “Sir” or “Ma’am” may be considered patronizing or rude. Don’t use “Mr.” if your interviewer is an M.D. Most doctors would rather be called by their first name than to be called by their surname without the “Dr.” designation they trained eight or more years to earn. Research your interviewers, and take a moment to figure out the proper way to address them.
Pay attention to body language. Shake hands firmly. Practice if necessary. Make eye contact (if this is a challenge for you, try looking at their nose). Don’t sit down until they sit down.
Use appropriate language. Don’t presume familiarity – do not talk as if you are talking to a best friend or buddy. No cursing, obviously. No slang or emoji talk (“lol”).
Never interrupt. Ever.
Likability is not a secret sauce. Being likable during an interview does not require talent, magic, or luck. You don’t need to have my husband’s natural ability to create an instant connection with anybody. You can ensure that you will make a likable impression by watching your adherence to the four key pillars of likability. Every employer wants to hire the candidate who is respectful, authentic, demonstrates a positive attitude and who really, really wants the job.