Conversation Hacks For Interviews (and life)

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It’s the big day you have been waiting for several weeks. You have put in a lot of effort preparing for this interview. You know the ins and outs of the company, you’re ready to take the opportunity by the roots and you feel pretty confident. Somewhere deep in your heart you know you have a terrific resume and will be the best person suited for the job.

But there is one important ingredient you might have missed which can undermine all your efforts.

“Building a rapport with the person in front of you”

How to generate a connection on first sight? How to steer the conversation to greener pastures? How to find the common ground? The answers to these questions need an understanding of the interview process. And here comes the big cliché…

“Employers are not here to test you, they are here to know you as a person”

No matter how many times you have heard and dismissed this notion, it still holds true. They are here to select a partner they can work with, talk to. It is imperative to understand this.

For the next few minutes let us get into the shoes of an interviewer and look at the world from their side.

What am I looking for in a candidate?

  • Presentable
  • Sincerely Excited
  • Humble, yet confident when describing experiences
  • Smiles
  • Listens carefully. Answers only what is required
  • Articulates his passions & ambitions clearly
  • Easy to talk to

What I don’t want the candidate to do?

  • Give me his biography
  • Brag ostentatiously
  • Talk about personal matters unless asked
  • Exaggerate experiences
  • Be oblivious to current affairs
  • Fumble when answering
“The interviewer will only indulge in a real conversation if he finds in you, all the things said above. It is quintessential to first set the stage for a comfortable conversation and then worry about filling in the silences.”

Before going further, let’s make it clear that we are not just hacking our way into anything. We are not fooling people into liking us. It is very easy to be genuinely likeable and to form a bond with anyone you meet when you are authentically yourself and you care about the other person. With that mindset let us jump into some great conversation starters.

Not every person you meet is alike. Some like small talk, some don’t. Some like to exchange pleasantries and others jump straight to the point. Usually you understand this behavior within minutes of talking to the person. It is then your discretion to limit the topics you discuss.

Start with a ginormous smile, a firm handshake and a greeting on name basis

With this you leave a very strong first impression. This shows that you are confident and have a sense of belonging. It prompts the person to revert back with similar enthusiasm and perhaps a question.

People feel validated when you greet them by their name. If you have trouble remembering names, feel free to ask them first and then use it during the conversation.

Let them speak first

After the initial pleasantries, wait and let them speak first. You don’t want a situation where you cut them off and end up apologizing. Be thoughtful of the situation and respond accordingly.

How are you doing?

This is probably one of the first questions which everyone fumbles, when they are nervous. I’ve jotted down some answers. Take your pick

  • Great! Thanks. How about yourself?
  • Cannot be better. How about you?
  • Doing great as usual. How has your day been going?
  • Living the dream. Thanks for asking. How about you?

Every employer is different

Some entertain small talk and some don’t. Start with asking very general questions like

  • How has your day been going?
  • Are you liking it in [City]. The weather has been amazing this week.
  • Has it been busy for you?

Gauging their answers, you can decide if you want to go down the friendly path. Always make it a habit to listen very carefully. The questions you ask in succession should be a follow-up of the discussion. They should be thoughtful and not out of the blue. That way the interviewers know that you are genuinely interested in listening to what they have to say.

It’s not about you

That does not sound right. You are the one being interviewed so shouldn’t it be about you? No, it’s never about you. It’s about what the interviewer imagines his future co-worker to be.

You do have to speak about yourself but it should not be an overkill. The conversation should revolve around how you can be a great addition to their team.

Be aware of what is happening in the world

This includes world news, sports news, tech news, weather forecasts, events in the city, news about the company you applied for, movie releases, politics and the list goes on. You don’t have to know everything in detail. Don’t do this by compulsion. It needs a lot of practice to be generally aware of things. Here is a list of resources I use to keep myself updated on a daily basis (these are just my preferences)

  • TechCrunch: One of the best websites for tech news. Download their app for quick updates. Don’t forget to check out their Crunch Report everyday
  • Zolt: I stumbled upon this app recently and loved it. They provide crisp world news on the go and their interface is smooth
  • Texture: It is coming up as the Netflix for magazines. For a monthly premium, you get to enjoy the likes of Time, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sports Illustrated and over 60 such magazines
  • WSJ: I prefer reading the e-version of Wall Street Journal because they are good at what they do (and because I get it free as a student). Any reputed newspaper for that matter will suffice
  • Reddit: You will be amazed by the content which Reddit generates everyday and I find most of it interesting because of the way they curate the content. Explore the different subreddits and follow them religiously
  • ESPN: Coming at the last but most important is sports news. People bond over sports like nothing else. ESPN is the go to app for all sports

Listen. Pause. Talk. Maintain eye contact

Maintaining eye contact is one of the most powerful ways to keep anyone engaged in a conversation. It helps in developing trust and shows that you are attentive. Also remember the “20 second rule” when talking. How to know if you talk too much? This wonderful article throws light on how humans instinctively love to talk about themselves. Take advantage of this and be a good listener for a change.

Find common ground

It does not always happen and it is not always necessary. However, finding common ground can lead to effortless conversations. The topic can be as diverse as sports, religion, books, adventures, traveling, cocktail mixing, solving Rubik cubes, gardening, fashion, movies, songs, schools and a plethora of other things. Keep tossing up topics until you find one, which resonates. As I mentioned earlier, finding common ground becomes easier if you put some efforts into increasing your general awareness. You need not be a pundit at what you speak. You just have to find the thread and follow it.

A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want.

The last piece of the puzzle is Humility. Humility is self confidence without arrogance. It gives you instant likeability points. You might come out thinking how awesome the conversation was but the battle is lost if you were not humble enough.


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