INTERVIEWS / JUN. 20, 2014
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Interview Skills: How to Connect with a Potential Employer Using Clues from Their Office

How we set up our work space can say a lot about us. Think about your own desk or cubicle, and the insight you give visitors about your hobbies, home life, and work ethic. Even a completely clear desk sends a message about your focus and personality. When going in for an interview, you can pick up on these same clues to your prospective employer's interests and management style in their office arrangement and decor. This added information can help you connect with the interviewer and land that new job.

Use What You Know

A friend of mine once idly complimented the framed cross-stitch art in his interviewer's office, noting that his wife had created several for their own home. His future boss was so impressed that he knew it was cross-stitch and not needlepoint that it generated an entire lengthy conversation on the subject. My friend only had to answer a few questions about his work history and skills, and he got offered the job. To his surprise, making a personal connection with his interviewer about crafts helped earn him a position as an automotive engineer.

Glance around the office when you go in for an interview. Make note of anything you recognise as a common interest, like a signed jersey from your favorite hockey team, a photo of the company boss with a scientist you admire, or maybe even that cool cross-stitch piece. The trick is to only comment if you have something meaningful to say, and can participate in a knowledgeable conversation. If you only went fishing once with your dad when you were 6, don't get yourself stranded in an exchange about the best reels and fishing depths for muskie.

Keep It Positive

Jordan Devine over at AskMen stresses that at work "it's good to support the hometown team and it's bad to support any other team." This is a good rule to follow in interviews as well. If your potential supervisor has an office full of Chicago Bears paraphernalia, it's wise to keep your Packers allegiance to yourself.

Use this advice for any other items in the room, too. If you spot licorice in the candy bowl, don't mention how much you hate the stuff. Don't bring up that you resent how politics has invaded the industry when you can see several photos with the interviewer at political events. Unless you want to bond over something like her copy of Roger Ebert's book "Your Movie Sucks," try to keep any interview conversation about common interests on the positive side.

Adopt the Right Tone

How the office or boardroom is set up can tell you what tone to strive for in the interview. Office architect and designer Ellen Hendrickx notes that "traditional furniture such as a large intimidating desk and imposing chairs" sends a message that the boss treasures the hierarchy. Be confident in how you present your skills, but make sure to show respect and some deference to this guy who wants it clear that he's in charge.

What if you're interviewed by a casually-dressed group, gathered at a round table in a brightly painted cafeteria featuring photos of staff birthday parties? Now you can adopt a more easy conversational style in your responses. Stress collaboration and let these future coworkers see your enthusiasm and passion for your chosen field.

Focus on the Skills They Want

If that traditional intimidating desk set-up is immaculately clean and the office in perfect order, be sure to play up your organisational skills, punctuality, and ability to meet deadlines. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently proved that a messy desk inspires the creative mind, so when presented with a cluttered interview environment, try tailoring your interview answers to reflect your innovative side.

Not all clutter is created equal, however. Be sure to evaluate whether your future boss is just disorganized, a hopeless pack rat, or a creative genius. If her office is in decent order but the in-box is piled high with documents that have started tumbling over onto the rest of her desk, it's a good time to mention you can start immediately. Talk up your multitasking skills and experience with a fast-paced job environment. Don't call specific attention to any deficiencies you see in your surroundings, but use those details to present yourself as a solution to all their problems.

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