Career Survival Skills: The First Interview
by Michael Mayher

The first interview is the most critical step of the entire hiring process for you, the applicant, job seeker, candidate, or in whatever manner you may describe yourself. To be clear, the first interview is characterized as the first face-to-face, in-person meeting initiated by a handshake. Telephone, Skype or any other remotely conducted interview does not count. In my opinion, yes, they matter and you must get through it to reach the first real interview, although those are events that are primarily meant for screening; in most professions the serious stuff occurs face-to-face. This being a blog, I cannot go into great detail, but in future blog entries I’ll address the finer points. Although styles and process can differ, there are some common and predictable, almost ritualistic features of most interviews that you can anticipate.


I’m not going to advise about how to dress because readers of this blog are adults. The only suggestion I make is when in doubt, overdress. You can adjust and reflect the same dress code you encounter the next time. You never go to an interview without first investing a few minutes to look online and investigate the organization and, if possible, the person you will meet, which is often on their company website. Never go to an interview unprepared to answer two inevitable questions:

  • “What do you know about our company?”
  • “Why are you interested in joining us?”

If you cannot thoughtfully answer these questions you shouldn’t even be there because you’re wasting their time and yours.

Take these very basic items with you:

  • Pen and pad of paper (asking for a piece of paper and/or a pen makes you look, well, unprepared)
  • Questions about the job or company (if you don’t have any questions, you’re not serious and that is exactly how they see you)
  • Your business card if you have one (offer your business card – and if they don’t offer, ask for theirs)
  • A printed copy of your resume
  • Breath mints (bad breath is a distraction) 

And don’t forget to silence your phone. There are no good excuses for distractions; focus on the meeting and nothing else.

Introduction and conduct

How you introduce and present yourself sets the tone for the meeting. Be neither overly serious nor too friendly or goofy. Professional and friendly is the way to go. If you are giving a speech you may open with a joke, but not at an interview. By the way, the handshake matters; cold, wimpy-limp and lifeless handshakes do not convey, “I’m the person you should hire.” As to how to best present yourself, I strongly suggest you assemble and hone your own personal F.A.B. presentation, you can search my blog archives for more information about it. After 22 years in this business it is still, without a doubt, the best way to present yourself professionally. But it takes time and effort to assemble an effective presentation.

After the introduction, let them initiate the conversation and react accordingly. Often, people who are nervous talk too much, too fast and without meaning to cut off or interrupt the interviewer. It’s understandable that you might be nervous and have the jitters. I still have to occasionally curb my enthusiasm and slow down, it takes discipline. How to do so, and the manner of speaking is a whole separate blog entry for a future time, because what we say is as important as how we say something. Understanding and learning selling techniques can be immensely helpful with this aspect because there is a lot of psychology involved -- but save this for another day. For this blog, I suggest people try to slow down their rate of speech and, no matter how well prepared you may be, wait a second before you answer any question, this way your reply will come across as more deliberate and thoughtful.

Posture matters. Mom was right when she told you to sit up at the dinner table, so don’t slouch because it suggests you’re there and present, but not really. Body language speaks volumes.

Exchanging information

The first interview is supposed to be about you demonstrating that you are who you claim to be, ensuring you are whom your resume portrays you to be. Also, to elaborate in more detail your experience, accomplishments and for you to articulate why you think you are the best person for the job. Your function is to learn more about the job for which you have applied - that’s all. Anything beyond that depends on how well it goes but this is the basic purpose of the first interview. That isn’t too scary, is it?

Furthermore, don’t make the mistake of repeating only what’s on your resume when telling them about yourself.  It is a merely a short summary on a piece of paper. If you do not elaborate, if all you do is recite the info they already have in front of them, you’ve likely already failed the first test.

Taking notes

Yes, you are supposed to take notes and don’t be afraid to ask them to pause and or repeat something if you need to do so. You may think you’ll remember everything from the meeting, but in 24 hours you will forget key points and kick yourself for not writing it down. Good hiring managers will not be bothered by this because, again, it shows you are serious and interested.

Asking Questions 

You should, as a result of the meeting be developing questions as the interview proceeds. Managers find it odd and a bad sign if, at the end of the interview, when asked, the applicant has no questions. In fact, it is a very bad sign and can take points away from an otherwise good interview. They are asking questions of you; so too, should you be asking questions of them. Remember, from the last blog entry, it isn’t only about them evaluating you, so actively participate. It is a business meeting, so conduct it as such.


In the first interview, you should never initiate the topic of money. Asking, “How much does it pay?” before you learn about the job is unprofessional, short-sighted and diminishes your viability as a suitable candidate. It makes you appear greedy. Use your head and be strategic; if you succeed in showing you are qualified you’ll have another interview when you can openly discuss it. I also argue endlessly with lazy human resource people who ask, “How much money do you want?” in a first interview as a screening tool. If you say a number too low, you’ve cheated yourself. Say a number too high and they won’t call you back. If asked in the first interview, try to sidestep the question. I want you to say this, “This is our first meeting and I don’t yet know enough about the job to know how much I should ask for; and perhaps you don’t yet know enough about me to determine what I am worthy of getting paid.” I don’t care how you choose to word it, but it is the truth. Stay focused on the opportunity. I always say, the best paying job that sucks is not the best job. After the first interview, the next time you meet, let it rip, talk about money – but not in the first interview. If they push and it is unavoidable, tell them you, “…need to learn more about the job, but you cannot go below (…..)”. 

Closing the interview

How you conclude the interview is a critically important step. How the interview ends is largely up to you. This topic is extremely important for the simple fact that most people fail the final hurdle of the interview. Here’s an example: I once worked with a hiring authority who told me they liked my candidate and they did everything right until the end, when the applicant failed to ask for the job (or next step). Trust me, they are watching and waiting for this. They want people who want to join them, not just those who show up and go through the motions. Do you know what most people say at the end of the interview as they are leaving? “…I hope I hear from you.” (yawn) Not very convincing is it? However, this topic requires much more time and explanation. I will cover it again soon.

To conclude, in my expert opinion, in order to greatly increase your chances of success at the initial interview, you really need to be well prepared in three primary areas. They are:

1)      A good resume (demonstrating you are qualified for the position you seek)

2)      A good F.A.B. presentation

3)      Having a basic understanding of and actively employing rudimentary Closing Skills


There are many areas where anyone can improve, but the three I listed greatly increase your potency as a job applicant. If all of this is a bit overwhelming, it isn’t, but technology has made all of us lazy and less self-sufficient, so what are we going to do about it to enhance your odds of success? Although it isn’t rocket science, know that we’re talking chess, folks, not checkers.

More articles by Michael Mayher:
The Interview
Resolve to Make This Year, Your Year
Periodic Update of Your Resume

About the Author: Michael Mayher has been an international direct search recruiter on two continents for over 22 years. A consultant, published author, lecturer and blogger, he re-introduces professionals to critical Soft Skills lost in our digital age and necessary to effectively navigate their careers. You can find more information by visiting his blog and website. 

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