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



5 tips to craft the perfect, A+ “no, thank you” response to a recruiter

If you’re in the Silicon Valley tech scene, you’re probably familiar with this situation:

An overly exuberant recruiter sends you a cheery note with far too many exclamation marks about an “amazing opportunity!!” to join a “fast-growing company!!” that is “disrupting!” or “transforming!” whatever industry they’re in.

After you wipe an expression of bewilderment off your face (that many exclamation marks…really?), and thinking that the recruiter should really reign it in a little bit, you ponder, “Hmmmm…are they the really the next unicorn?”

In spite of the smiley faces and promises of grandeur, you aren’t jazzed about the opportunity.  Maybe it’s not quite what you’re looking for in your next role or it’s not the right time.

While there are many ways to say “no” to this recruiter, there are only a few ways to craft the perfect “no, thanks” response.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t one of them:

Hey Sydney it’s Scott. Are you aware it’s Saturday? Can I have a fucking day off from you douche bag recuiters? So I guess that’s a no. No wait a sec snowflake, a fucking no we can’t have a quick chat. Cheers.


Yes, this was an actual email I received from an actual candidate I reached out to.


And yes, the word recruiters is supposed to be misspelled as a tribute to its original author.

Sometimes people boggle my mind. Who sends an email like that? Even if you are in no way interested and are annoyed at life and have some personal vendetta with the company, this is not an OK response. To any human. Ever.

But you know that already.

How to say “no” graciously

I know you can do better than “Scott” without any help from me. But even a “no, thanks” only gets you to a C+ or B- in my book.


It’s a small world. A very very small world. It’s such a small world that I interviewed two people in May for a marketing and design position at one company and then ended up interviewing them again in August for a different role at a different company.

In other words, you may not be excited about this role or this company or making a move at this time, but the recruiter won’t be at the same company forever and you just might want a job they’re recruiting for in the future. Your future success in that case requires the recruiter to A) remember you, and B) feel overwhelmingly positively when they hear you’re name.

To balance Mr. “Wait a sec snowflake,” here’s a response that gets an A- from me:
Hi Sydney,
Thanks for reaching out.  I reviewed the information you had provided about your company and I must admit I am very impressed with what you have been able to accomplish with the [technology] in such a short time.
However, after carefully reviewing this opportunity, I don’t believe this role leverages my skills and interests to it’s fullest potential.  Perhaps, there will be another opportunity in the future that would be a better fit.
I appreciate your interest,
yours truly,
Sam Smith

But you can do even better!

Five critical components for the perfect, A+ “no, thank you” response to a recruiter

To leave the recruiter brimming with positive feelings toward you and an even stronger desire to work with you in the future, make sure your “no, thank you” note includes all five of the components below. The examples are real lines from real candidate responses. It’s common for me to receive an email with two or even three of these pieces but include all five and you’ll be in the top 1%.

  1. Say thank you
    • Thank you for thinking of me.
    • Thank you for your email!
    • I appreciate you reaching out.
  2. Express your disinterest
    • I’m not currently looking to make a career move.
    • I’m not sure this is the right opportunity for me.
    • I just accepted a new role so am not available.
  3. Say something flattering
    • [Company name] sounds like a great company and exciting opportunity.
    • I like what [company name] is doing and totally believe in it. This is where the future will be in few years.
  4. Leave the door open for later
    • Let’s keep in touch should any future opportunities work out for the both of us.
    • Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn for future possibilities.
    • Feel free to check in a few months from now if anything opens up.
  5. Refer someone else or say something otherwise encouraging
    • I wish you the best in the search. I have no doubt you’ll find the right person for the role.
    • I will share this opportunity with my marketing network to see if anyone’s interested. Best of luck filling the role!
    • I know someone who would be a great candidate for this role. Please see the attached resume for my good friend Sarah Williams. If there’s a fit, please feel free to reach out to her directly.

The Distracted Goldfish

main goldfish

Your hiring manager may be distracted, but she isn’t stupid

Ah, the mansplain. Here’s how I feel about that:

frustrated angry baboon

Mansplaining has no place in an interview

Or really anywhere for that matter.

Your hiring manager may be distracted, but she isn’t stupid. Maybe you’ve worked in healthcare for 20 years and speak frequently at industry conferences. Or maybe you’ve tested every ed tech product out there. Or maybe you’re deeply familiar with every renewable energy company in the Bay Area. Good for you! This will give you a leg up.

Now put it aside and assume that your hiring manager understands her business, the industry, and the competitive landscape better than you do.

Story time

Get cozy for a minute and I’ll tell you a story.

Last fall I was recruiting for a tough-to-find role and found a guy with a fantastic profile. Yippee! That’s half the battle. I reached out and we scheduled time for him to talk with my colleague Christina. Double yippee!

At the agreed time, Christina called him. (Riiiiing! Riiiiing! Or whatever the Skype equivalent is…beeeboop, beeebooop) No answer. She tried again but still nothing.

20 minutes later he called back saying matter-of-factly “sorry,” he was eating dinner. Christina, unsurprisingly, declined to talk.

Too bad and tough luck for that guy.

Unless your child has a 104 degree fever or you just got into a car accident or you just won $700 million in the lottery, there’s no excuse for missing an interview. Dinner is not a family emergency.

But this story gets even better. A few hours later, I received this message:

Hi Sydney,
I tried to squeeze in the call last night with Christina but didn’t make it successfully. Thank you for considering me for this position but i did some research and we have some serious competition already taking over East Africa called M-Kopa. As most of the management works with the mega giant Safaricom – mpesa, Angaza will not be on a level ground to compete with them. They are already using the Pay-as-you-go strategy and almost every village in Kenya already has a branch and ground sales force. Do let me know how i can assist. Have a pleasant day.

surprised goldfish mansplain interview

In case your mouth isn’t gaping wide open yet with that little fishy glug-glug expression, let’s break this down for a minute, shall we?

Hi Sydney,
I tried to squeeze in the call last night with Christina but didn’t make it successfully. 

Last I checked, this isn’t how an interview works. You don’t “squeeze” me in. We agree on a time. I call you. You answer. The end. Mmmmmkay?

Thank you for considering me for this position but i did some research and we have some serious competition already taking over East Africa called M-Kopa.

“We” have some competition? Oh, do you mean Angaza? Since when are you part of the team?

As most of the management works with the mega giant Safaricom – mpesa, Angaza will not be on a level ground to compete with them. They are already using the Pay-as-you-go strategy and almost every village in Kenya already has a branch and ground sales force. Do let me know how i can assist. Have a pleasant day.

Yep, I’m already intimately familiar with the biggest player in the space. I’ve had coffee and multiple conversation with their CEO. As an aside, our business model is completely different from theirs.

Oh yes, thank you. The links you found through your quick Google search have provided deep insights and shed all new light on the competitive landscape. Whatever would we have done without you?!

But I actually am an expert. How can I convey that?

Sarcasm aside, I get it. Sometimes you are much more deeply experienced than your hiring manager. Here are three tips to convey your expertise productively:

  1. Convey your expertise by talking about your experience
    • Saying things like “I’ve worked in the healthcare industry for 20 years” or “Last year I spoke at <insert name of prestigious industry conference here> about the consolidation of individual medical practices” lends immediate credibility to what you say.
  2. Communicate your expertise with something amazing you’ve achieved
    • It’s always a good idea to speak specifically about what you’ve accomplished. Actions speak louder than words, after all. But, to take it to the next level, put it in the context of the broader industry or functional area you’re an expert in. Did you do something at your prior company that put them on the cutting edge relative to their competitors? Now that would impress me.
  3. Demonstrate your expertise with sophisticated questions
    • The best way to demonstrate your expertise is by asking fantastic questions.  There’s nothing that impresses me more. If you’re an expert in the industry, you might ask intelligent questions about the company’s competitive advantage relative to other specifics players. If you’re an expert in a functional area, you might ask about the company’s philosophy, technology, or approach for that area. The trick is to ask a sufficiently specific and nuanced question that it shows that you know what you’re talking about.

Are you a hiring manager? What do you think are the most effective ways for candidates to convey their expertise?

The Distracted Goldfish


P.S. Please capitalize the word “i.”

How to summarize your background in a job interview, tip #1

If you’re in the midst of job interviews, you already know that the most common interview question you’ll get is some variation on “walk me through your resume.”

Maybe it’s “please summarize your experience for me,” or “tell me a little bit about yourself,” or “explain your background for me.” But it’s all getting at the same thing.

walk me through your resume

“Why, of course!” you say.

“Easy!” you think.

I mean, you lived it, right?

Not so fast, career dreamer.

This seemingly innocent question is also one of the hardest to get right. Potholes, quick sand, and cliffs all await you as you verbally re-live your background or tell your interviewer “a little bit about yourself.” It’s a proper Tough Mudder obstacle course but without the mud slinging and trophies.

obstacle course


Assume your interviewer has never seen your resume, cover letter, or LinkedIn profile

Summarizing your background can’t be that important if the hiring manager already has your resume, right?

Nope. Wrong.

“But…but…” I hear you say. “C’mon, hiring manager! Stop being lazy. You have my resume and I worked on it for approximately a billion hours so just read it and you’ll know everything you need to know.”

I’m with you. As an interviewee, I hate being asked to summarize my background. But the “just read my darn resume” attitude also once got me turned down from a job I really wanted. More on that another time perhaps.

So, now that I’ve been on the other side, I’ll let you in on a secret. Your interviewer isn’t lazy. They’re just really really REALLY busy. And distracted.

Let’s be honest. The person interviewing you — hiring manager or not — has barely looked at your resume and cover letter. They aren’t going to remember yours over any of the other hundreds they’ve looked at. Or maybe they’ve only looked at your LinkedIn profile and not your beautifully designed resume and carefully crafted cover letter. I personally rely more on LinkedIn profiles than resumes because the consistent format from profile to profile allows me to more quickly digest someone’s background.

Whatever you do, don’t start describing your experience by saying “you have my resume, so I’ll be super brief.” Instead,

  1. Assume your interviewer doesn’t know a thing about you,
  2. Spoon feed them what they need to know; don’t make them work for it, and
  3. Yes, you still have to make your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile perfect

But this is just the beginning. Stay tuned for more on other common pitfalls you might encounter when you next get that dreaded “tell me about your background” question.

The Distracted Goldfish



Introducing the distracted goldfish, a.k.a. your next hiring manager

Oh, haiiiii!

I’m Sydney, your hiring manager.


(Swims in circle)

Oh, haiiiii!

I’m Sydney, your hiring manager.

And in the past 10 weeks I’ve interviewed 407 people.

Yes, this is crazy. No, I’m not technicalla recruiter. But this many interviews in a short period of time means that I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It also means that I’ve got plenty of tips to share with you to help you stand out from the crowd during your next job interview. Let’s start at the beginning.

Rule #1: Remember, your hiring manager is a distracted goldfish

Did I mention this already? Sorry, can’t remember.

As it turns out, interviewing 407 people in 10 weeks is a recipe for remembering absolutely nothing about anyone.


If I ran into some of the people I interviewed on the street, I’d probably put my foot (fin?) my mouth by acting as though we’d never spoken in our lives. It’d go something like this:

The Distracted Goldfish: “Oh haiii! I’m Sydney. So nice to meet you!”
Candidate: (head tilt) “Uh…yeah…we’ve met before. Actually, we spoke last week.”
TDG: (nervous laughter) “Mmmm.”
Candidate: “We talked about how I created a marketing campaign via Subway that saved the NBC show Chuck.”
TDG: “Ah, yes. That sounds familiar. But remind me how exactly that worked?”

I’m certainly not going to remember what you told me about increasing your company’s sales by 10% quarter over quarter. Nor am I going to remember how you implemented your company’s marketing automation tool. Or that you did some re-branding design work for American Airlines. Or that you used to be a martial arts fighter but now you meditate and drink green tea every day.*

Actually, I might remember that one…

The point is: unfortunately for you, you’re going to have to work very hard to be remembered, which is the first step to standing out.

But, I’m here to help. Let’s get you that dream job.

The Distracted Goldfish


* True story from one of my all time favorite job candidates