How to catch a recruiter’s attention right off the bat in a job interview

[Or, alternatively: What oysters, popcorn, and mothers-in-law have to do with your next job interview]

I know candidates think they have it rough. And they do; being interviewed is exhausting and requires a significant investment of time and energy. But interviewing candidates is exhausting too. During hiring sprints, I’m sometimes on the phone for hours at a time, struggling to keep my phone charged and talking to a new candidate every 20 minutes. It’s back-to-back without a moment to catch my breath or get a drink (which is perhaps a blessing since there’s no time to pee, either).

One Friday afternoon several months ago was no different. It was the end of a long week and while the potential for weekend sunshine had me excited, my afternoon had been filled with a number of phone screens already, including a few doozies. *Yawn.*

I took a deep breath and dialed my next candidate. Enter Mike.

“Hey Mike, it’s Sydney calling from XYZ Enterprises. How are you?”

“I’m excellent!” he replied with a level of enthusiasm only appropriate for a Friday afternoon, “I’m going to eat oysters with my future mother-in-law in a little bit!!”


Insert cartoon-style blinking on my part. Huh, what? I had fully expected the canned response I get from the vast majority of candidates — a simple “good, thank you” or maybe “fine, thank you, and you?” if I’m lucky.

Shaking myself awake I replied, “Oh really? Well that sounds like a lot of fun! Or I guess that depends on how you feel about your future mother-in-law. I know sometimes that can be a controversial topic. Where are you headed?”

And so the conversation continued for a minute or two with small talk of oysters (Hog Island? Have you been to Tomales Bay to shuck your own?) and mother-in-laws (You get along swimmingly with yours? That’s awesome, me too!), the latter being admittedly dangerous territory.

Mike’s response to my standard “how are you?” greeting was totally off-the-wall but also disarming because it gently broke interview social norms. It caught my attention and gave him an opening to talk about something other than the weather which in turn allowed him to build rapport. Importantly, Mike’s response also fit him to-a-T; it was authentic to his slightly wacky personality in a way that immediately gave me insight into his character. I was ready — even excited — for the rest of our 20 minute conversation.

You only have seconds to make a first impression

Exchanging pleasantries and summarizing your experience are likely the first two things you’ll do in an interview, which means those are your only moments to make a first impression. There’s debate about how long it takes to form a first impression, but it’s on the order of seconds, not minutes.

When you do or say something out of the ordinary right off the bat like Mike did, it’s a breath of fresh air for your hiring manager. I’m not talking about anything outrageous, just enough to hook and reel me in. After all, there are social norms to uphold and you don’t know my sense of humor. [Note: Be very careful using edgy humor. More on that at a later date.]

So take it seriously! You need to be stellar — at your absolute best — when you first answer the phone and talk through your prior work experience in an interview.

Let’s say that you only have 30 seconds to catch my attention before my mind starts to wander and I get distracted by a YouTube video of cats eating ice cream that a friend just sent me. Do you have a plan to stand out from the crowd?

black sheep goldfish stand out

Say something to stand out and hook your interviewer in the first 30 seconds.


Here are three simple behaviors that reel me in as I’m engaging in small talk with a candidate and when they start to describe their background.

1. You’re incredibly articulate

Do you leave your friends and family speechless when you’re debating politics or other intricate, heated topics? Do colleagues fawn over your presentation skills and immediately agree with each one of your persuasive points? Lucky you!

The silver tongued are naturally engaging to listen to. If this is you, you don’t have to do too much out of the ordinary to impress me. Simply exchange pleasantries and talk about your background as you normally would, making sure you follow the other best practices on this blog, of course.

Not you? No worries. Most people aren’t extraordinarily eloquent, including yours truly. I can put together sentences that include both subjects and verbs but that’s where my power of persuasion ends. The good news is that this isn’t the only way to catch my attention.

2. You’re SUPER energetic, friendly, and engaging to talk to

Can you develop rapport with a brick wall? Do near strangers share their life stories with you? Well then, put that skill to use and work it!

When your interviewer asks, “how are you doing?”, set yourself a part. Don’t just say “great, thank you” or “fine, how about you?” Instead, give the hiring manager a more interesting response like Mike did. Show interest in what the hiring manager is saying. Ask them a question about themselves. Offer up information about yourself. Quickly find something in common that allows you to connect. And yes, that can be something as random as oysters or mothers-in-law.

Whatever you do, don’t hide your energetic, relationship-building personality behind a layer of formality. Most candidates are far too formal in interviews. I want to hire a human with emotion and personality, not an overly serious robot. Be professional, but let your personality shine through too.

And remember to use your best “phone voice.” It’s hard to develop rapport without seeing the person you’re taking to, so you have to overdo variation in your vocal intonation a wee bit. Monotone is, well, monotonous.

Hard to imagine yourself being over-the-top enthusiastic? That’s ok. Give it a try anyway. Cocktail hour small talk isn’t my strong suit either, but everyone can learn to engage in a few minutes of superfluous chitchat.

3. You share an interesting tidbit about yourself 

Not incredibly articulate or super energetic? The good news is that everyone can share an interesting, unusual, or impressive tidbit about themselves in the first minute of small talk or when starting to describe their background.

I once had a woman launch into the summary of her background by talking about popcorn, specifically how she would be popcorn if she were a snack food. It was a little cheesy (no pun intended) and I did momentarily wonder “where on earth is this going…” but it caught my attention and provided her a foil to quickly share important attributes about herself. Most importantly for a start up hiring manager: she thrives under pressure. Even though it was a bit contrived, her story drew me into the conversation and made her incredibly memorable.


As you think about what hook to use in your next interview, remember to be authentically YOU! Your hiring manager wants to understand who you are as a person. And don’t worry too much if you aren’t naturally super articulate or overly energetic, like I mentioned above. I realize that my draw to candidates based on these attributes is superficial and won’t get anyone through an entire interview process. But it sure helps to grease the wheels a bit.

Are you a recruiter? What catches your attention?

Are you a candidate? What “hacks” do you use to catch someone’s attention?

The Distracted Goldfish



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