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How to turn an interview into a conversation

As a broadcaster, there’s no question my career depends on excellent communication. But here’s a secret I’ve learned from every guest who sits down on my set: so does every career. 

Regardless of profession, we’re constantly engaged in conversations that hopefully lead to positive results. I’ve found that the savvier you are at initiating and maintaining powerful, persuasive discussions, the more successful you will be in your career — and the more valuable you will be to an employer.

That’s why I believe the biggest advantage you can give yourself in any job interview is to turn it into a conversation. The faster you can break out of that rigid, dull Q&A and showcase your ability to engage in meaningful dialogue, the faster you distinguish yourself as that rare candidate who can build meaningful relationships and invigorate colleagues.

But how do you do that? How do you transform a tense interrogation into an organic, balanced conversation where your humanity can shine? Start with these four foundational blocks:

1. Ask questions early.

People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. You show that you care by interjecting questions or comments where they fit, instead of waiting until the last two minutes of an interview.

Begin by being a generous listener. Allow the interviewer to establish the tone and set priorities, but as soon as you hear something interesting, follow up with a comment or question that digs deeper into the issue. Look for information in the interviewer’s answer to prompt your next question. You’ll slowly steer the conversation toward topics that emphasize your shared values and reinforce your strengths.

2. Ask open-ended questions.

If I were to invite a guest to my show and ask questions that only lead to yes or no answers, our conversation would flat-line, and it would appear I lack enthusiasm for the guest’s unique life experience.

The same thing happens in an interview. If you ask stock questions that the interviewer can answer in one word, you won’t be able to build a great conversation and, worse, you’ll seem uninterested.

Ask bold, insightful questions that open up your interviewer and express your passion. Great questions begin with words like “what,” “how” or “why.” This framework ignites larger conversations that can take twists and turns into different topics.

In terms of specific questions to ask, you can’t go wrong by digging into what the company does to serve the community. Nearly every company has at least one cause it supports, whether that’s cancer research or children’s welfare. And when you express an interest in humanitarian efforts, you show that you care as much about society as you do your job. Businesses crave people with those ethical values right now.

You could also ask about what company issues keep your interviewer up at night, what bit of your resumé looks most important or even what type of person gets the most respect at that company and why. All of these questions allow you to follow up with strong thoughts on how you can help solve those issues or embrace the company’s values.

If you need a few more ideas about what to ask, check out these engaging questions.

3. Research your interviewer.

Everyone knows it’s important to research the company before an interview. But it’s just as important to find out about the person who will be sitting across from you. You might discover you share some friends, interests or experiences. These overlaps can turn a stiff interview into a memorable event and help you stand out from the crowd when it comes time to select a candidate.

Start with a Google News search. See if the person appears in any recent articles or press releases. Check Twitter to see if the interviewer has an account and if you share any interests, like sports or photography. Finally, see if you have any mutual connections on LinkedIn. If you do, reach out to those connections and ask if they can impart any information about the person.

If you find commonalities, weave them into your conversation as casually as possible, so you don’t appear to be a stalker or a brownnoser. It’s always safe to mention your interests in passing and see what the interviewer says. If he or she follows up with, “I love that too,” or, “Oh, you know him? We’re great friends,” then you’re off and running.

4. Dust off your nonverbal communication.

This is the most important secret to turning an interview into a conversation. Before you even say a word, the interviewer will subconsciously size up your confidence and comfort level based solely on how you hold yourself. That first impression will set the tone for the rest of the meeting and dictate how open the interviewer feels he or she can be with you.

Prepare to exude self-assurance, even if you feel nervous. When you arrive, introduce yourself with a firm handshake and friendly eye contact. Then take the opportunity to sincerely thank your interviewer for his or her time and interest.

When you sit down, take a position that feels most natural to you. Lean toward the interviewer just a little, uncross your arms and use your usual hand gestures. However you’d engage with a respected family member or close friend, that’s how you want to engage with the interviewer. This will put the person at ease, you’ll look authentic and natural, and the conversation will follow suit.

If you employ these basics, the interviewer won’t even know you were in control of the conversation, because what they have been a part of is a conversation they really enjoyed. They loved your spirit, they loved that you were engaged, and they can now see you as a collaborative team member and a fantastic company ambassador. That’s a powerful impression an interviewer won’t forget when it’s time to choose a candidate.

Tavis Smiley is a television and radio broadcaster, philanthropist and author of “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure,” and a dozen other books.

Sponsored by University of Phoenix.