We all understand how important first impressions are, particularly when it comes to starting an interview well. Get off on the wrong foot and it will be an uphill challenge to get that job offer. Start well on the other hand, and it can be plain sailing.
In all my experience of interviewing candidates for positions in investment banking, I usually formed a very strong opinion almost instantly. I had that “gut instinct” straightaway as to whether the person walking into the room was the right person for the job, or not.
On the one hand this seems illogical and even unfair – how can I have a strong view without even discussing anything with the candidate? Most people who interview others agree with me 100% that this is what happens. So what is going on?
In trying to understand this puzzle, it has become clear to me that this happens thanks to how our brains have evolved to sort and process incoming information.
Whenever we meet a stranger, we make all sorts of instant judgements about them based on how they look, sound, move. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has written extensively about how the brain “thin slices” information to give an instant picture of someone’s likely expertise, or effectiveness in a given role. And research shows that these “gut instincts” usually prove unerringly accurate.
So with this in mind, here are 9 important things that an interviewer will instantly judge about you, the moment that you walk into the interview room, and what – if anything – you can do to influence them.
1. Are you trustworthy? If you have an open, friendly demeanour, you will come across as much more trustworthy than someone who avoids eye contact, or has a guarded or aloof disposition. I don’t want any nasty surprises (e.g. finding out that you lied on your CV). If you don’t tick this trustworthiness box, why would I take the risk to hire you?
2. Would you fit in with my team? Good teams have a certain clubbiness or corps d’esprit. If you don’t look the part or have a personality which would fit into and complement my team, I won’t hire you. Equally if the position is a client-facing role, could I picture you being effective in front of a client?
3. Do you look intelligent? Like it or not, we stereotype intelligence based on appearance, so someone in glasses and a sharp suit looks smarter than someone in a tracksuit. Our brains rely on patterns to make sense of information, and to process information quickly we make these usual links between appearance and qualities. Read this article on first impressions to understand this point in more depth.
4. Are you warm and likeable? If you smile and greet me in a friendly manner, I am more likely to think “I like you” than if there is no smile and you are so paralysed with nerves that you have the charisma of a corpse! Why would I hire someone I don’t like? Many candidates score terribly on this point. Make yourself likeable, as most humans are suckers for favouring people they like.
5. Do you seem confident? Confident, competent people are an asset in any team. They will contribute more actively, share ideas, challenge the status quo and bring a new dimension. No-one wants to hire a wallflower. If you look timid how will you stand out in a large team, let alone a huge organisation? Read my article on power posing to learn how to enter the interview room with confidence and authority.
6. Do you look successful? Like it or not, an expensive suit conveys a successful image more than a cheap one. If you look like a successful business man or woman, my brain will assume you are successful. Look like a scruffy tramp and my brain will assume that your life so far is one long train wreck. Bear in mind this is not just about how you dress, but also your body language and your charisma.
7. Are you dynamic? While I would counsel against somersaulting into the interview room, it generally makes sense to be dynamic and energised. Do you stride into the room, or rather amble in? Trust me, people who have done the latter in front of me never got my vote.
8. Do you seem purposeful? Do you look like you are here to achieve greatness, or just exploring an opportunity that you’re really not that fired up about? I want you to look as if this is your life’s mission to get hired into this dream job. People who are on a mission to be successful are usually busy and alert. Look like you are one of those people. A firm handshake says that you are here to do business.
9. Do you seem competent? I deliberately put this last, as it is closely related to the points above, and perhaps not that easy to define. But imagine going into a dentist’s room and seeing him drop his drill on the floor as you go in. Would you think him competent to put that thing in your mouth? Probably not. So avoid tripping on a rug, snagging your coat on a door, fumbling with your bag. While this may have little to do with your real competencies for the role, don’t give an impression of incompetence in any shape or form!
While I have listed 9 points here, there are in reality many more little nuances in those first few seconds which prompt our brains to “thin-slice” interviewers towards a snap impression about you.
Our subconscious mind is a complex beast, shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary experience. So be aware that this is happening, and know that while some aspects are out of your control, others are definitely within your sphere of influence.
Prepare accordingly to give you the best possible chance to tick all the right boxes when you walk into the room.
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