Last week, while I was helping a client prepare for her Amazon interview, she asked me how to start the interview. This was a good question, because the beginning of the interview is the most important part.
Your interviewer will decide if they like you in the first five minutes. Clearly, what conversation starters you use in those five minutes is important.
And the first five minutes will probably be greetings, introductions, and small talk.
Small talk in interviews is unpredictable
The problem with small talk, for non-native speakers English speakers and for everyone else too, is that small talk is
In other words, you never know what the topic will be and it isn't in a simple question-answer format.
Will you be talking about the weather? The latest news? Sports? Your haircut? Or will there be no small talk at all? You never know in advance.
I've had interviews where there was no small talk, just a greeting and straight into questions, and I've had interviews that felt mostly like small talk.
So if you don't know what the topics will be, and you don't know what the personality of the interviewer is, how can you prepare for the beginning/small talk part of the interview?
How to prepare for small talk at your interview
Whether you're interviewing at Amazon or another company or even interviewing for school admissions, you'll probably have some small talk at the beginning of your interview.
Before we talk about Amazon interview-specific skills, let's talk about the basics of small talk that everyone in any type of interview needs to know.
If you're already great at small talk, you can skip to the Amazon-specific section.
1. Beginner interview small talk skills: answering standard questions
If your English isn't that good or you aren't comfortable talking to new people, read this article on small talk basics for interviews.
It has a list of the simplest of questions you might get asked in a small talk situation and will give you an idea of good and bad responses.
An example of one of these questions is, "Did you have any trouble finding the office?"
Another one is, "Are you enjoying our nice warm weather?"
You should be able to answer these simple questions and others like them before you go on to the next step.
If you feel like basic small talk is difficult for you — if you aren't comfortable with the questions in that article — or if you feel very awkward in unstructured social situations — you should practice more before you go on to the next step.
For more practice, look at my friend Kim's small talk articles and videos on her website English with Kim. Even if you’re a native English speaker you can still have problems with small talk, so don’t feel like you can’t watch her videos if you speak English well.
Once you feel comfortable with basic small talk, you can move on to the next step.
2. Intermediate interview small talk skills: introducing topics
The next level of small talk skill is when you don't answer questions, you ask them. Instead of replying to the interviewer's conversation starters, you introduce your own.
Prepare a list of questions just in case you need to think of a topic during small talk.
When do you use this list?
Basic small talk skills require you to answer questions. The next level is when there is no question — there is just silence. Silence that you have to fill with a conversation starter.
You may have an interviewer who isn't very talkative, and they may greet you but then not immediately bring up a topic or ask a question. If there is a period of silence before the interview starts, or during the interview in between questions, you should definitely use some small talk.
You can use one of the questions in the list above, but if those are too basic or if you've already used them, here's a list of ideas you can use for small talk in your job interview.
Some of the suggestions for small talk questions are:
How long have you worked at [company name]?
What do you think of [company name]?
Have you had a busy week?
Do you have any plans for Thanksgiving/the weekend/[whatever is coming up]?
So far I've talked about how you can
answer small talk questions and also
ask small talk questions
during your interview. If you can do those two things you can handle most small talk situations.
Now you're ready for the advanced small talk technique — the targeted topic.
3. Advanced interview small talk skills: the targeted topic
What do I mean by "targeted topic"?
If you're worried about your English, mastering the basics of small talk may be enough to work on.
But if you want to do extra preparation, instead of preparing questions to ask that are about general topics like the weather, the company, or the commute, try to think of some topics that your interviewer really cares about and use those as conversation starters during small talk.
The key to advanced small talk skills is to talk about things your interviewer cares about.
This will work for any interview.
In the case of an Amazon interview, bring up Amazon-related topics.
How to prepare for small talk at your Amazon interview
If you really want to show your interviewer that you're an intelligent person with a pro-active personality — and you do want to do this if you're interviewing at Amazon because they like intelligent, pro-active people — talk about things that Amazon employees care about.
What do I mean?
You're here, at an Amazon interview. What does your interviewer care about? Amazon!
Prepare Amazon-related topics for small talk
Yes, I'm suggesting that instead of discussing the weather or asking if they saw the football game last night, you should talk about something related to Amazon.
I'm not saying that sports and the weather are bad small talk topics, and they have a place in casual conversation at work and in interviews.
But you're at the interview to show your enthusiasm for Amazon, and you're smart enough to know interesting things about Amazon you can talk about, so show this by starting off the interview with a little story or a question about something Amazon related.
Isn't this too aggressive? Not really. Remember, Amazon is a company built by a geek and run by geeks. As an Amazon interviewee, your job is to show you are also a geek. At some companies, starting out by bringing up something like this might be too much/too pushy, but you can't really be too geeky or too hard core at Amazon.
So by all means, don't start out your small talk time by bringing up the weather or sports. Go straight to the Amazon topic.
So what kind of Amazon small talk topic can you use?
Examples of Amazon-targeted small talk
You get bonus points if you relate your small talk topic to the job you're applying for. For example, I worked with a client who was interviewing to be a sales manager at one of the new Amazon bookstores. A good topic for him would be something book or bookstore related. He could say, "I tried the new Kindle Oasis the other day and I loved the button style. I hope someone gives it to me for Christmas!"
How about Alexa small talk? I assume you know that Alexa is Amazon's voice-activated virtual assistant software. What could you say about it?
I would say, "I was at a party this weekend and drunk people were asking Alexa to play songs." Hmm, maybe not the best story. Unfortunately that is actually the only Alexa story I have. But maybe you can think of your own personal Alexa story that doesn't involve alcohol.
How about, "I just used Alexa to ask me how long the drive would be to get here, and it was right." (or is Alexa a "she"?)
Or, "I heard that you sold millions of Alexas over Black Friday weekend."
Or how about a Whole Foods story. "I'm so excited that Amazon bought Whole Foods. I heard they're going to make Prime the Whole Foods rewards program? That would combine the two places I spend the most money."
As you can see, I'm picking these examples from my daily life. I assume you have your own Whole Foods-related experiences to chat about. If you don't shop there, don't talk about it.
Amazon Prime video-related
Here's another one: "The new season of Transparent is really good — better than last season. Have you seen it yet?" As you probably know, Transparent is on Amazon Prime Video. It's one of the shows they developed themselves.
If you're interviewing at Prime Video you could use this.
"Did you get a chance to go to the re:Invent conference?"
I think you can see where I'm going with this — pick a topic to use as a conversation starter that relates to the job you're applying for and show your interviewer that you're a good communicator and passionate about the company.
If you'd like more ideas about how to prepare for your Amazon interview, read these:
How to answer behavioral questions in an Amazon interview
How to answer behavioral questions using the STAR technique
How to answer the interview question "Tell me about yourself"
How to answer the interview question, "Why do you want to work at Amazon?"
I’m happy to say that my clients, who range from senior VP level to entry level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon. If you’d like to work together on your interview prep, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free consultation or an interview prep session.
Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.