Nothing is more unnerving than the awkward, pin-drop silence that looms before the start of an interview. You need to find that balance between eagerness and weakness to start your interview off perfectly. Should you wait for the interviewer to say something? Should you go right ahead, make some noise, break the silence? Or should you wait for the interviewer to play the role of the polar bear and break the ice? If you decide to be the polar bear, here are some interesting conversation starters that will transition you safely to the actual interview.
1. Your trip and the location of the company
Often, there is nothing outstanding or particularly peculiar about the weather to talk about. Besides, asking ‘how do you like the weather?’ is a tad bit unoriginal and cocky; who wants to hire such a cliché of an employee? Forget about the weather; instead, talk about your trip to the office, but avoid rambling on about the traffic or the crowd, even if this was your experience. Set the right mood by highlighting even the slightest positive aspect of your trip. For example, the free-flowing traffic, a beautiful landmark (if this is your first time here), the scenic city, or the organized and on-time metros. If the architecture or surrounding environment where the company is located is particularly pleasant, be sure to mention it without being over complimentary.
Lesson: Even if you feel crappy, avoid bringing any negativity to the interview. No one wants to a chronic complainer on their team.
2. Something they posted on social media
If you know who is going to be interviewing you, look them up on social media—they will definitely look you up. In spite all its contraventions of personal privacy, social media has made it so much easier to find background information about a person, providing plenty of opportunities for genuine conversation starters. If your interviewer posted a status message that particularly interested you, you could use this to kick-start the interview. However, you might want to avoid talking about social media status updates if they are personal, for example, a picture of their spouse, child, friend or family member. Less personal status updates touching on topics such as a business trip, a company event, or a general observation would make for good conversation starters without amplifying the awkwardness that is characteristic of interviews.
Lesson: Do some background research on your interviewer. They will likely appreciate the fact that you took the time to acquaint yourself instead of coming to the interview with a blank slate.
3. Something they are passionate about
If you are afraid that commenting on a person’s social media status may make you look like a stalker, why not talk about the interviewer’s hobbies or passions. But, this one is a bit tricky and should be used sparingly and strategically. You could say, “I read on such and such blog or magazine or social media site that you love dancing.” If dancing is truly their passion or favorite hobby, they will be happily surprised; do not be astounded if the interviewer bubbles in excitement and wants to talk a little bit more about their hobby.
This is a particularly good icebreaker because it takes the attention away from you and directs it to the other person. Just mentioning their hobby or passion gives the interviewer a sense of importance, allowing you to glide smoothly into interview mode. It is better to bring up a hobby or passion that you also appreciate, admire or like. Talking about an activity that you dislike and listening to someone yammer on about it is a mood spoiler.
Lesson: Making the interviewer the center of attention in the first few minutes of the interview allows you to blow off some steam as you get yourself together for the actual interview.
4. A common background that you share
Have you been wondering about the best way to put LinkedIn to use lately? If you are preparing for an interview and you know who will be interviewing you (spoiler alert: in most, but not all companies, it is usually the department manager or human resource personnel), LinkedIn is where you want to hang out the night before.
Skim through the interviewer’s profile to see if you have any common connections or whether you share a background, for example, you share an alma mater, you live or lived in the same neighborhood or you know someone important that they know too. You can dig up a wealth of information about a person’s professional life on LinkedIn, connect the dots and use this as a soft take off point heading into the interview.
Lesson: If you are going to mention a common background, it is important that you tell them where or how you found this out. For example, say this “I found out from LinkedIn that we attended the same university,” not this, “Nice to meet you, we attended the same university.” Just telling the interviewer where you got the information from makes you seem less like a stalking freak.
5. Company-related event
If there is anything to be learned about preparing for an interview, it is the importance of acquainting yourself with the interviewer and the company you applied to. There is nothing more impressive to an employer than a prospective employee who shows a keen interest in the company even before being hired. Researching a company will keep you in the know about interesting events that have just happened or are about to happen such as a major renovation, installation of a new gym, hiring of a new CEO, or a company-wide trip to Las Vegas. As long as the event is not controversial, this is probably the easiest way to break the ice with an interviewer if they work at the company. You might say something like, ‘Wow, this place looks awesome, I heard you were getting a new, comfy lounge; that must be exciting?”
Lesson: Find out what is going on at your prospective workplace. Your ability to gather information beforehand and to deploy it at the right time might score you some points with the interviewer.
6. Compliment their style
The last resort is to compliment the interviewer’s looks such as their outfit, hair or an outstanding accessory. Depending on how you say it, this may come off as flattery. Deploy mild flattery as your weapon of final resort. If you choose to go down this path, it is important that you ‘read’ your interviewer within the first thirty seconds of shaking their hand, smiling and settling into your seat.
Lesson: Flattery is best left to those who are confident in their charisma and ability to quickly transition from small talk to the business of the day.
As you can see, the best icebreakers for an interview are those that initially draw attention away from you and make the interviewer the focus of attention—not in an intimidating kind of way, but rather in a way that makes them feel special and important at that moment. However, always remember to keep your conversation starters clean, professional and witty to win over the interviewer and to showcase your confidence, charisma and humor.