You're all alone in the job search end zone and here comes the ball. It's yours to catch and be victorious, or it's yours to fumble and return to the bench. Your education, skills, experience and connections navigated you past all worthy defenders. You're in the open and the ball is headed your way. At this point it's yours to lose, and there is only one way to not drop the ball right then and there.
Manage Your Small Talk!
It's true, chit-chat or small talk will kill nearly any interview if you are not very careful. I know, everyone thinks that they are great at small talk. I agree that you may have wonderful communication skills, but when it comes to the job interview the rules are different. Make a mistake here, and you'll be hoping Obama extends unemployment benefits for another 13 weeks because you're going to need it.
You see, small talk uncovers more about a person than any direct interview question ever could. Anyone who interviews often will work on using the brief transitions in an interview to get the job seeker to (unknowingly) open up while their guard is down. This is where the unsuspecting job seeker falls into the trap. You see, this tiny part of your interview uncovers your faults and weakness in a way that you would never show during the formal interview.
Now before you object to this because you are just too smart to fall for that - no you not. As an executive recruiter I've interviewed over six thousand people in the past 15 years, and I can tell you that almost everyone tells me more than they should. This is why it's so seductive for the interviewer to engage you in casual conversation, because everyone falls for it.
It usually starts before the interview. You're waiting in the lobby, and the interviewer comes out to greet you, and walks you back to their office. You had a great firm handshake, great eye contact, and a pleasant demeanor. You've succeeded at the first impression and you celebrate your mini-success - or have you? What you don't realize is your interview began five minutes prior with the admin in the lobby. They were instructed to engage you in small talk and find out more about you. Because your guard was down you mentioned how your recent triple bypass was giving you some discomfort and FUMBLE-RUSKI! You dropped the ball and the clock just ran out.
Will you become the next VP of Marketing with a bad ticker and chest pain? Not likely.
Now while you're walking back through the office a more deadly conversation begins. It always starts with, "Did you find your way here alright"?
Plan your response to this question before it is asked. Never explain car trouble, being lost, going to the wrong building. Again, your guard is down at this point. You want to convey success and confidence. Your answers should be positive and planned out. Whatever you do, don't talk about the weather.
Small talk does however provide you the opportunity to combat any perceived issues you think you might have. Are you overweight and you're concerned that this could be a concern? Well then talk about the tennis tournament you played over the weekend, or the ten mile hike you went on the day before. Alleviate that concern when small talk arises.
If you're worried that your skills are rusty, then bring up how you just attended a conference on the cutting edge new software package that seems to be the buzz in your industry. You always want to combat your perceived weakness during the soft talk phase of the interview, and never succumb to the enticement of the chit-chat. It's difficult because it's so unknowingly seductive.
If you fear that you are perceived as too old then you need to plan your small talk to combat this. So when you're asked how your weekend was you shouldn't respond that you were celebrating the birth of your 12th granddaughter. Certainly a joyous event, but they may want to fit you for a blue vest and direct you to the nearest Wal-Mart. Again, give them a reason to see that you're young, hip and going to be around awhile. Find a way to talk about how you were Tweeting your kids with your cell phone while hiking to the top of Pikes Peak. If you can pull that one off, you've just scored the winning touchdown!
Michael C. Webb is The Employment Expert, Author of Six Weeks to Multiple Job Offers, and a Partner in the executive search firm CFOs2GO. Find Michael on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/theemploymentexpert