“You Never Get a Third Chance to Make a Second Impression.” I love this quote from Seth Godin (Free Prize Inside, pg. 217), as a humorous take on how important first impressions are.
First impressions are especially critical in an interview. Why do so few people do anything to manage the first impression they give, when research shows that most hiring decisions are made based on first impressions in the first 2-30 seconds (see Interview in a Snap for details). Most people treat the most important part of an interview as a random event, when it can be planned and managed to give the candidate a high chance of success.
Most candidates just make sure they are completely undistinguishable - their clothes are clean, hair is brushed, and their shoes are shined. If you want the job, wouldn’t you want to stand out?
A few people can pull this off naturally, and are great in interviews. Often, these naturals are very attractive, great at putting other people at ease immediately, instantly likable, or really naturally funny.
What about the rest of us?
You don’t have to be America’s Top Model or a standup comedian. First impressions can be managed. Managing and carefully creating a first impression takes research, planning and practice.
Act & communicate like you already work at the company. Use their style, speak their language, and look like employees at your target company look. If hiring managers make their decisions in the first 2 – 30 seconds of the interview, the decision is made just before or just after the initial handshake. There’s no way you can communicate detail in that timeframe, only impressions to influence “gut feel”.
Research: In 4 Killer Ways to Use Research, I describe great places to look for company research, and how to use it on your resume. Of course it’s great to use research to understand challenges, goals, and to develop questions. But you can use research to understand culture also.
Understanding culture is a crucial piece of creating a winning first impression. Hiring managers hire others like themselves…it’s described as being a “good team member”, or “someone who fits in”. First, you’ve got to understand what that means, specifically. Research company websites, annual reports, and articles paying attention to jargon, word choices, and tone. Look at the list of research resources in the 4 killer ways article for more content.
Look for the following to understand culture:
- Pictures – What do employees look like? What do they wear? Does the company have a formal or informal atmosphere?
- Tone – How do employees communicate? Formally or informally?
- Jargon, Keywords, and Mottos – These will be sprinkled all over marketing literature, websites, and company blogs. Find words you can use in your own conversation
Go stealth – Part of your research is talking to employees first hand. Hang out where they eat lunch or go to happy hour and listen in. Better yet, introduce yourself and ask questions about the company. Use your Face-to-face, LinkedIN, or Facebook networks to find others at your target company. Talk to company contacts on the phone, or if you have time meet them for coffee. It doesn’t matter what you ask about the company, because you’ll want to listen to HOW they answer, the tone and speed of their speech, and the words they choose. In person, look at how they stand and sit – are they straight or relaxed, formal or informal, expressive or flat, do they gesture or keep their hands unused? Finally, ask about the hiring manager, to see if they are like everyone else, or a rebel.
Plan your attack: Most people “wing it” to prepare for an interview, and end up randomizing their chances of success. Plan your first 2-30 seconds. Determine how you will stand and walk when you first meet the interviewer, how you will shake hands, how close you will be to them, the gestures you will use, and the first words you will say, and the tone and speed you’ll use when you say them.
It’s dangerous to just assume a suit interview these days. If you wear a suit to an informal company, you’ll look like you’re from the FBI, and find it difficult to establish trust and rapport. Ask HR or your phone interviewer what is the normal dress at the office.
If you learn the hiring manager is a rebel, someone who’s really changing things, or someone described as “different”, you’ll want to ask a little detail. Try to get a contact who knows them, and discover how the hiring manager dresses, how they communicate, etc. If you can’t get details, then change something in your dress – if everyone else is wearing white shirts, wear a blue one. If everyone else wears maroon striped ties, wear a wild tie.
Practice: Have you heard that it makes perfect? Practice in front of a mirror, in front of a video camera, in front of friends. If you can video, and then email the first 30 seconds of the video to close online networking contacts (who have never met you in person, but who you’ve communicated with extensively), ask them for their gut reactions. Ask them what they think of the person in the video. Is the person trustworthy, hardworking, intelligent, personable, dedicated, savvy, insightful, or empathetic? Look for the key words that the company uses to describe successful employees, and see if your networking contract interprets that from your 30 second video.
How will you manage your first impression, so you’ll get a second or even a third chance?
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