Why the first 10 minutes of your interview can make or break you and how you can prepare.

You've heard it said often: "First impressions are the most important."

When it comes to the job interview, here's recent proof that bears this out:

"Hiring managers often know whether they might hire someone soon after the opening handshake and small talk," a new survey suggests. Executives polled said it takes them just 10 minutes to form an opinion of job seekers, despite meeting with staff-level applicants for 55 minutes and management-level candidates for 86 minutes, on average. Executives were asked, "How long does it typically take you to form either a positive or negative opinion of a job candidate during an initial interview?" The mean response was 10 minutes.*

This came from a survey published April 12, 2007, and developed by Robert Half Finance & Accounting, the largest specialized financial recruitment service in the world. It included responses from 150 senior executives with Fortune 1000 companies.

So what does this mean for you as you approach job interviews?

Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, sums it up when he says, "The interview begins the moment job seekers arrive, so applicants need to project enthusiasm and confidence from the start. The opening minutes of the conversation often set the tone for the rest of the discussion, making it wise to prepare especially well for the first few interview questions."

Here's how to make the first 10 minutes of your interview work in your favor:

1. Know the four most important questions
Pay close attention to those four most important questions they want answers to:

Why are you here?

What can you do for us?

Will you fit in? (Will you get along with our values and culture here?)

What makes you different from everyone else that we may have talked with? (Will you go that extra mile?)

Rehearse your answers with your own personal "stories." These are short narratives describing times when you overcame a crisis, led a team, met a deadline, resurrected a failed project, etc.

Some common questions you'll often encounter at the beginning of the interview:

"Tell me a little about yourself." (Question #2: "What can you do for us?")

"What do you know about us?" (Question #1: "Why are you here?")

"Why are you here today?" (Same)

"Why are you looking to change jobs?" (Question#2: "What can you do for us?")

"What's your most important accomplishment to date?" (Same)

Why should we hire you (over everyone else we've seen)? (Question #4: "Will you go the extra mile?")

2. Know the company

Do your homework. Always research the company before you interview. Know who they are, what they do, what their major products and services are, who their competitors are and the current "buzz" about them.

Here's why:

The first few minutes of the interview are the time to flatter them. Remember the question, "Why are you here?" Show them that you've done your research and not only know something about their company, but also have several reasons for being enthusiastic about working for them. Let this enthusiasm carry over into your demeanor as you walk in the door.

3. Know your role

First impressions count for a lot, especially in the job interview. You're on stage from the minute you enter the room. So play your role by first getting into character:

The "character" you play is that of a problem solver, not a job seeker.

As a problem solver, you know why you are here, you're excited about this company, and you know you can help them achieve their goals. With this kind of ammunition, you can score direct hits on their opening questions and win big points for yourself by demonstrating you are both knowledgeable and excited about their opportunity.

Now have a killer interview!