Yup, it’s about chemistry. And a big part of chemistry comes from that time-honored social lubricant: small talk. Most adults know the basics of chitchat, but, let’s face it, some of us are better at it than others. So, whether you are an introvert or extrovert, here are seven tips for being a small talk pro:
1. To be interesting, look interested. Your interviewer may start off the meeting with small talk, perhaps to put you at ease, to judge how you behave under pressure, or to assess your people skills. That means, even if the topic isn't one you find particularly engaging, you should act as if you care. Small talk is about relationships, not content. What’s actually talked about is secondary. So much communication nowadays is electronic. That in-person conversation at your job interview is a golden opportunity to build common ground and create good feelings.
2. Stick to safe topics. Talking about the weather is a huge cliché, but have you noticed people never seem to tire of it? Traffic is also another great conversation starter. Also, sports. If the interviewer brings up a hot button topic (politics, say, or religion), or asks you a question you definitely do not want to answer (“What do you think about that healthcare bill?”), refrain from getting drawn in. How? You can just smile and say nothing, or change the subject. If you need to answer a question, you could calmly remark, “I haven’t read the details. What do you think?” Whatever you do, don’t get rattled. Maybe they’re testing you! (Or, maybe, you’ve run into a rogue interviewer—in which case you might want to consider whether this is a good place to work or not.)
3. Listen more than you talk. It's sad but true: People are more interested in what they have to say than in what you have to say. Avoid long-winded stories about the huge traffic jam you were in that morning. On the other hand, if the interviewer wants to tell you about the horrors of his morning commute, let him rant. (Although, if he rants too much, taking up valuable interview time, try to move the conversation back to the job under discussion. See tip no. 4.)
4. Don’t be the one to go off topic. Small talk is almost by definition “off topic,” so you do need to be willing to spend a bit of time chatting about the aforementioned weather, traffic, or sports. Let yourself be led by the interviewer. If your interviewer wants to spend five minutes talking about golf, then spend five minutes talking about golf. Although, as in tip no. 3, if chatting starts to take up too much time, try to steer the conversation back to the job. Of course, if your interviewer is all business and no chitchat, then you don’t have to worry about small talk at all!
5. Make the small talk work for you. Or, at the very least, not against you. If the interviewer asks if you had any trouble finding the location, don’t launch into a convoluted tale about how you got lost, had to ask a policeman for directions, broke a nail, etc. Everything you say in a job interview should make you look intelligent, mature, and sane. This goes for small talk, too. Use it to display your savvy and smarts.
6. Curb your enthusiasm. Yes, you can actually be too enthusiastic at a job interview. For example, if the hiring manager has a photo of her kids on her desk, gushing about how adorable they are might come off as desperate or even a little creepy. Ditto for that painting on the wall, or your interviewer’s blouse (or tie), or even the office building, if you think it's beautiful. Too much is too much, and it makes you sound insincere.
7. Watch your body language. Finally, small talk is not just what you say. It’s what you do, too. So maintain good eye contact and keep your chin up. Smile when there is something to smile about; the rest of the time, look pleasantly alert. Most of all, don’t jiggle your knee, kick the desk, twirl your hair, check your cell phone, play with your pen, stare off into space, or bite your nails. Use small talk as a way to establish a genuine human connection with your interviewer. After all, a genuine human connection is the basis for all successful human interactions, which is what you want your job interview to be!
Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.