How to Excel at an Initial Interview: 5 Tips Learned Eavesdropping at Starbucks

“It’s just a conversation at Starbucks to make sure they want to call me back.”  

“It’s a pretty low bar.  As long as I come across as normal, I’ll advance to the next phase.”  

“It’s at Starbucks.  It’s just an initial interview.”  

Do any of these sound familiar?  Recently I’ve observed several initial interviews in various coffee shops where it seemed clear that the job candidates had those thoughts before the interviews.  And afterwards, based on their performances, I am confident they each regretted that approach.   

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when you are invited to do an “initial” interview, particularly if it’s not going to be in person.  We’ve previously addressed the unique nuances of video interviews, but this week we’re offering five tips specifically for initial interviews held in a coffee shop or other non-office environment. 

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First, regardless of the setting, prepare for an initial interview as you would for a final interview.  I know, that might sound like a waste of time.  But consider that if you prepare for an initial interview as though it’s a final interview, you will need to spend less time preparing for the final interview. And, more importantly, you’re more likely to have a future interview to prepare for if you prepare adequately for an initial interview.

Second, and conversely, while preparing as you would for a final interview, appreciate that an initial interview is different.  There may be some question overlap, but you are even more likely to be asked basic questions to screen out unprepared candidates.  Common questions include:

  • “What do you know about the position?” 

  • “What do you know about our organization?” and 

  • “Why are you interested in working here?”

Third, don’t let the setting or nature of the interview get you too comfortable.  This can be particularly challenging for initial interviews because they tend to be shorter than a usual, in-office interview.  And, with less time to convey your key talking points, it’s important to ensure that your answers are focused rather than allowing yourself to get overly chatty.

I’ve also seen informality cause an issue because the logistics and etiquette are trickier than for an interview in an office.  If you’re meeting in a coffee shop, do you show up without coffee, then assume you’ll stand in line together to get coffee?  I recommend getting to the coffee shop early and buying a bottle of water. That way, in the unlikely event the interviewer wants to stand in line making small talk while you wait for your order, you can get something basic with him/her and take the water with you after the interview.  (Please, no “extra unicorn tail sprinkles, served in a special chalice” unless medically necessary.)  And in the more likely scenario where you are expected to just sit down, you have something to drink if your throat gets dry.

At the interview, be ready to stand up, say thank you, and leave.  In one case I observed, the candidate got up, put on her coat (struggling to get her coat sleeve to cooperate), and then piled on her various bags. She also made small talk at the same time, and before she realized what was happening, the professional interview veneer was long gone and she was making informal comments that were not going to get her a second interview.  Don’t feel the need to get redressed in front of the interviewer.  Grab your stuff and leave, or don’t bring it all in the first place.

In another case, the candidate marched off confidently at the end of the interview and tried to walk into the bathroom, only to discover he needed a code to unlock it.  Then, instead of asking the barista for the code or using another bathroom anywhere in the world, the candidate asked the interviewer if he—who did not work for the coffee shop—knew the code.  I highly doubt he advanced in the interview process.  

Remember that you are “on stage” until you are home, and everyone from the barista or receptionist, table next to you, etc. can overhear and have an opinion, as well as share it with the interviewer.

Fourth, just as in a formal interview, ignore any chaos around you and focus on the interviewer’s body language and questions.  You might think this is obvious advice, but I recently observed an initial interview where the basic “do you have plans for the weekend?” chitchat opening turned into the candidate going down a tangent that included her favorite bars and restaurants, and even favorite beers.  After the first 30 seconds it should have been clear to her that this was not meant to be a substantial portion of the interview, given that she was applying for a job with an accounting firm and not as a nightlife commentator.  If she had been focused on the interviewer’s body language rather than looking around her, she almost certainly would have noticed his squirming.

Fifth, ask yourself why the interview is being held in that location.  In one case, the interviewer asked me for feedback on his interviewing skills, so I asked him why he had chosen a Starbucks in downtown Chicago. He responded that the office is so inconveniently located that they avoid having candidates visit until they’re sure they’re going to make an offer, in the hopes that the candidate will have also made a decision and the commute won’t dissuade them.  There are lots of other reasons an interview may be held at a coffee shop; I was once interviewed for a position entirely outside the office because the employer planned to fire the person whose position I was offered.

There are, on the other hand, lots of positive reasons that an interview may be held outside the office. The employer may favor a more casual setting, or it might be easier for the candidate or interviewer to schedule.  I know one employer at the (former) Sears Tower that holds interviews elsewhere to avoid candidates having to spend 10 minutes dealing with security for a 30 minute conversation.  In that case, the location is a reflection of their consideration for candidates.  Or the interviewer might be traveling between meetings and trying to be efficient. Whatever the reason, note it so you can consider whether it’s relevant to how you evaluate the employer and the opportunity.

There you have it: regardless of the setting, prepare for an initial interview as you would for a final interview; while preparing as you would for a final interview, appreciate that an initial interview is different; don’t let the setting or nature of the interview get you too comfortable; ignore the chaos around you and focus on the interviewer’s body language and questions; and ask yourself why the interview is being held in that location.

And if you are being interviewed in a coffee shop, watch for eavesdroppers; you never know who might be listening!    

 Have you had a good or bad experience with an initial interview?  Share your experience in the comments.