Job Interview Tips

Make winning small talk in a job interview

Written by Eric Titner

Although there’s a wide array of variables that can affect the types of interviews you’ll find yourself in when job hunting—from the industry and position you’re pursuing to the size of the room and the number of people whom you’ll be meeting with and more—your goal should always be the same: to leave a positive and lasting impression on a prospective employer and stand out from the competition as someone they’d really value working with.

While there are a number of key factors that you’ll be focusing on as you prepare for an interview, from a well-polished resume to an impeccable outfit and talking points about your past accomplishments and why you’re the perfect candidate for the job, one area that often gets overlooked is the value of “small talk.”

The truth is, small talk is actually an essential component of the interview process. Often, our very first and last impression, before and after the nuts and bolts of an interview takes place, is made over small talk. Think of the walk from the reception area, the few initial moments of “settling in” to the room where the interview takes place, and the final goodbyes over a firm and confident handshake—these are all opportunities to make a positive and memorable impact.

Let’s review some effective strategies for making sure you put your best foot forward when making small talk in a job interview.

Stay positive.

You may have had a terrible morning on your way to the interview where everything went hilariously wrong—your alarm didn’t go off, you knocked over a steaming hot cup of coffee, and you nearly burnt a hole in your shirt while ironing it and eating breakfast at the same time—but do you want this to be the first impression your interviewer has of you? Whining about the challenges you overcame to get to the interview on time, assuming you made it there on time, is not a good idea.

You don’t want your interviewer to think that if you were hired that you’d have to deal with an array of life’s foibles each morning in order to get to work on time. And you don’t want them to think you’re the type of person who’s always negative and has a raincloud following them around. Regardless of your work history and accomplishments, starting or ending an interview with negative small talk will surely work against you when they’re making a hiring decision.

Instead, stay positive—both in what you say and in your body language. Smile, project confidence and a positive outlook, and try to turn your small talk into an opportunity to be complimentary. Talk about how nice the office is or the pleasant weather or commute over, drop a comment about a nice plant or piece of artwork that your interviewer has. The goal here is to make the interviewer think that you’d be a pleasant person to have around if hired.

Avoid controversy.

Sometimes an interview will start off on a casual and relaxed vibe—more like a friendly conversation than a Q & A session, and this can be a good thing. Remember, the goal of an interview is to both present yourself as a capable candidate as well as a person who’s enjoyable to have around. You definitely want to leave the impression that you’ll make a great fit within a company’s workplace culture. However, if an interview takes the tone of a casual conversation this doesn’t mean that all conversation topics are okay to bring up. Do your best to avoid such hot-button areas as politics and religion, and try to refrain from getting too personal, which may make an interviewer uncomfortable or think that you have boundary issues, which could be a big red flag.

Use context clues.

Whenever you’re first getting to know someone new, that’s typically when you’re most open and receptive to available context clues about how best to proceed in a conversation. An interview should be no different. Look for clues—both subtle and overt—to help build your small-talk game. Is your interviewer’s office filled with dog photos and he or she drops a casual dog reference into the conversation? Try to inject a mention about your own love of dogs, and if you have a dog yourself, even better! Don’t forget, the best way to bond with someone is to discover the things you have in common.

Context clues can also help you determine what conversation items to avoid. Does the interviewer wince or look uncomfortable when you make mention of something? Pay attention to this, and change the subject, fast. Bottom line: be friendly, flexible, and on the lookout for positive conversational touchpoints.

Are you ready for small talk?

Whether or not you like small talk, you need to be prepared to handle it when you’re going on interviews. You can’t rely on your resume to “speak for itself”—remember, most interviewers are looking to get a sense of what sort of person you are and what it would be like to work with you, in addition to gauging your professional abilities. Be sure to treat each interview as an opportunity to get to know someone new and make a positive connection, and you’ll be sure to make a great impression!

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.