The First Minute: How To Start Strong

Have you ever been in an interview that was a struggle from the very beginning? You start late, and find yourself in “apology mode?” The candidate asks an unexpected question, and you find yourself hogging airtime for the first 5 minutes? You share too much information about yourself, and you find out you know all of the same the point where a real interview suddenly feels inappropriate?

Interviews are interviews. They are positive and interactive, but the intent is to ask a candidate direct, probing questions to understand his/her skills and motivations deeply. Candidates know this—or, rather, they SHOULD know this, if you have set expectations appropriately. Good candidates are actually drawn to companies that engage in a thorough process (see my Oct 17 blog on “How Savvy Candidates Avoid Being Interviewed”). The key is to set yourself up for success, establishing that this is, in fact, an interview, and that you are in charge of the agenda. You will leave plenty of time for them to ask their questions, but you are here to get to know them first.

Here are a few tips and tactics for getting things moving in the right direction:

  • Nail the logistics. If it’s a phone call or Skype, make sure you have your contact information down, and you know who is calling whom. If it’s in person, meet them in the interview room, rather than engaging in a long walk through the halls that opens you up for various forms of “interpersonal uncertainty.” And start on time, always.
  • Warm it up. If it’s a call or a Skype from a remote location, consider asking, “How are things in [your area]?” and be willing to engage in some lighthearted banter about the weather or an interesting recent event. If it’s in person, offer them coffee or water (if someone hasn’t served them already). Give them a warm smile and handshake, and observe their energy. Are they calm and cool, or excited and energetic? Don’t judge—just match them to the degree you can.  Regardless of the format, engage in some pleasantries and small talk, thanking them for taking the time and sharing your enthusiasm for your interaction. Consider sharing a brief compliment based on the great things you have heard about them. 
  • Give a quick introduction. Ideally they should know in advance who you are and what role you play in your organization. Avoid going too far into the details, particularly if you are prone to jumping into “sell mode” in your interviews. Talking about yourself misses the point of the interaction—it’s not about you! It also opens the door for the candidate to interject a few well-placed follow-up questions that can derail the dialogue in these critical early moments.
  • Once the small talk is done, set the agenda. Let them know that you have some questions you’d like to ask them to help get to know them better, and that you will leave plenty of time at the end for their questions about the role and the company. Show that you are prepared and in charge—we all have an instinct to follow the lead of a person who conveys confidence and comfort.
  • Set expectations. If it’s a longer interview, let them know they can take a bio break whenever they need to. If you sense you are dealing with a “talker,” ask their permission to nudge or interrupt at times to make sure you leave enough time for their questions.
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact. You may have questions written down, but consider memorizing your first one or two so that you can establish solid rapport from the start. You should sense early on whether they like consistent eye contact, or whether they prefer to let their eyes wander. Again, match them to the degree possible—avoid bearing down on a nervous introvert and (likewise) stay focused on the eyes of an engaging extravert.
  • If they ask you a lot of questions early on, politely redirect. “That’s a really great question—I’ll be sure to cover this when we shift to your questions about us. Sound good?” Strong candidates will usually take the hint, and will be grateful that you have created a space for them to learn more about you.

These tips should help set you up for a data-rich interaction. What happens if you follow these guidelines and you still struggle in those first 60 seconds? One of two things is happening. You may be nervous or lacking in confidence yourself, in which case you may simply need more practice. However, if you have executed your part well and the candidate is still unwilling or unable to follow your lead, you have gathered some important “meta-data.” The candidate may still be attractive, particularly if the role does not require a great deal of interpersonal interaction. But you have learned something concerning about their people skills which will prove useful in your decision-making and on-boarding plans.