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Body Language at Interviews

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You can imagine how pleased a food chemist was when his number one employment choice decided to fly him in for a day of interviewing. The agenda called for the chemist to spend the morning meeting with the research and development group's hiring manager and several prospective colleagues. Then, after lunch with the hiring manager, he'd present his research to a roomful of fellow scientists. Finally, he'd wind up the day by interviewing with the head R&D honcho.

By any interview standards, this would be a stressful day. Just to survive-- let alone succeed--the chemist needed to be in top physical, intellectual and emotional form. Knowing that, the candidate spent days preparing. But all his plans fell apart when the airline lost his luggage.

Consequently, it was one very apologetic and insecure professional who- -wearing a pair of torn blue jeans--presented himself and his work to a host of peers and senior managers.

We'll never know how much this factor directly influenced the decision not to make him an offer. I do know that the chemist found the situation so unnerving that it was impossible for him to settle comfortably into his game plan.

Besides reminding you to carry your suit on the plane with you next time you travel to an interview, this lost luggage story should also drive home for you the relationship between appearance and performance. When you're uncomfortable with the visual image you present, your timing and presentation will be thrown off.

Controlling Your Actions

Career counselor Debra Benton, author of Lions Don't Need to Roar (New York: Warner Books), says, "People form their impressions of you by looking at the outside and making assumptions about what's on the inside. They take you at face value. It's your responsibility to establish that value--and establish it quickly. It can take a lot of time and effort to undo a bad first impression."

Physical appearance isn't the only ingredient in a first impression. Consider the case of a poised and well-groomed banker who took great pains to project the right image in an interview with an investment banking firm. His perfectly tailored navy pinstripe suit, white shirt and red tie and carefully coiffed black hair cut an impressive "I know how to carry myself" image. His black wire-rimmed glasses added just the right touch of smarts to his professional demeanor.

As he sat confidently waiting for the hiring manager, he opened his leather briefcase one last time to make sure everything he needed was in place. But when he realized he'd forgotten to bring his business cards and an extra copy of his resume, he lost his composure briefly. As luck would have it, the hiring manager came out at that exact moment and found the candidate swearing vehemently to himself in a loud whisper. The banker's short fuse left a lasting (negative) first impression.

When you interview for a job, you always carry three people into an employer's office:
  1. Who you think you are.

  2. Who you really are.

  3. Who others perceive you to be. It's up to you to project your best self.
Remember that you're being judged from the moment you arrive at a company. Before you ever say a word, people have made assumptions about what kind of person you are, and whether they want to know you better.

To make sure you win the audience over, strive to "be consciously aware of and conscientiously in control of your actions for at least the first four minutes of every encounter," advises Debra Benton. "Obviously, you'll want to maintain a positive presence throughout . . . but if you tune in extra-sensitively and stay on top of your behavior for those first four minutes, you'll almost always achieve the effect you want."

The Handshake

A host of research studies have determined that 65 to 85 percent of all communication is transmitted nonverbally. And to an astute observer, your physical mannerisms provide insight into your emotional state. Hiring managers will peg you as nervous or uninterested if you're fidgety, shaky or as unresponsive as a corpse during interviews. Thus, it's important to take control of your body language from the start.

A simple handshake can work wonders (or create disaster). A few years ago, I interviewed with the director of a corporate outplacement center who literally radiated physical energy. Initially, he conveyed that vitality with a masterful handshake that still lingers in my memory.

We all know the admonishments against a "dead fish" handshake. But what is it about a person's grip that has such distinguishing power? At first, I thought it was just the strength with which the director clasped my hand. Recently, when I met (and shook hands) with him again, I realized there was more to it than that. As our palms met, I noticed that he held our hands in place for a fraction longer than normal-a subtle gesture that, in my mind, conveyed warmth. As he did so, he also simultaneously made eye contact with me and started talking about how nice it was to see me again. It would have been impossible not to feel welcome.

In that case, I experienced firsthand what it meant to be the recipient of a powerful self-presentation. On the flip side, Tom Hounihan, president of Hounihan Associates, in Palos Hills, Illinois, remembers being advised by outplacement consultant Judy Hudson that he shook hands with women too softly. "Basically, she told me that it would be perceived as chauvinistic," he says.

Energy Level

Interviewers also watch your eyes. When Hounihan was training director for a Chicago hospital, he remembers a candidate who (though well-credentialed) kept her eyes on the floor throughout the entire interview. "There was no spark or gleam in her eyes when she talked," Hounihan says. "It tied into the rest of her body language--which was all kind of 'slumped over.' It was obvious her self-esteem was dragging on the floor."

Understandably, employers consider your comportment in interviews a clue as to whether you can do the job and how well you'll fit into their environment.

New Orleans labor attorney Stefanie Allweiss prefers surrounding herself with extremely confident, high-energy professionals like herself. When interviewing candidates for associate positions with her firm, she's most concerned with their level of energy and enthusiasm.

"By the time candidates reach me, their basic credentials have already been established," says Allweiss. "I'm more interested in how relaxed they are. If they look like they're going to break out in welts any minute, I can't imagine how they'll handle the stress of a trial practice."

Allweiss also looks at how "interesting" candidates are. "Do they have a little life in them? Or are they totally over rehearsed? I don't want to work with a drone," she says.

Debra Benton believes that "relaxed energy" is a crucial component of a successful professional persona. Relaxed physical energy (unlike nervous energy) conveys poise and self-confidence. For example, something as simple as the way you enter a room can announce vividly "I'm here." To facilitate that goal, Benton recommends that you pause slightly before entering the interviewer's office, determine where you want to sit, and then settle in.

"You have a limited time to show people what you're made of," says Benton. "If you anxiously rush into a room and hurry to your seat, scarcely acknowledging anyone or anything in your path, slink in like a scared puppy or slip in surreptitiously so you can come and go without anyone noticing you were there, and then you waste precious time."

Your Posture

Posture is another key to conveying physical energy. A psychologist who was used to listening to her patients in a somewhat reclining posture unconsciously transferred that behavior to the interview setting. A videotaped "mock interview" tipped her off that what she intended to be an expression of relaxed involvement actually looked more like slouching. By sitting up straight and leaning toward the interviewer, she created a more favorable impression of herself as an active listener.

Taking Notes

One way to siphon your physical nervousness into intellectual energy is by taking notes. This approach gives you something useful to do with your hands and also can create the sense of a calmer, more involved listener.

But like any tool, it can be misused or misunderstood. So before dragging out pen and paper, observe a few basic rules: First, be sure you ask the interviewer's permission (some employers find it disconcerting). Second, don't get so involved in taking notes that you lose touch with the interviewer. (Make periodic eye contact and nod your head occasionally to show you're receiving the interviewer's message.) Finally, use your notes productively to organize your thoughts and questions and to provide feedback to the employer.

A word of caution: If you find that note taking is strictly a defensive maneuver that keeps you from participating in the interview conversation, you'll have to abandon it for more fruitful movement.

Hand Gestures

Hand gestures provide another good outlet for nervous energy. A corporate attorney interviewing for a new general counsel position likes to describe how he developed a state-of-the-art statistical package to analyze business holdings. To keep the story from getting too dry, he illustrates it by sketching a picture of a bell curve in the space between himself and the interviewer.

A corporate psychologist uses a similar approach when describing a career decision-making process. She draws a quick matrix in the air with her hand, and then shows how interests are charted on the horizontal axis and abilities on the vertical axis. "It helps people picture it," she says.

While hand gestures are great for illustrating concepts and displaying intellectual vigor, they can also demonstrate pure emotional energy. A brand manager was asked whether he felt his marketing efforts were successful. The "thumbs-up" sign he flashed the interviewer said more than words.

It takes a certain emotional comfort with yourself (and your role) to use your physicality effectively. When you feel insecure or uncertain, you may miss out on good opportunities to do so.

Facial Gestures

You can also build (or erase) emotional credibility through facial gestures. When asked about his relationship with his current boss, an operations manager allowed his expression to undo his words. The candidate said he'd gained broad-based experience as a result of his boss's diverse personal projects. His quizzical half-smile told a different story.

Likewise, a former marketing manager's spontaneous grimace at the mention of her former employer blotted out the studied neutrality of her words.

Sometimes, neutral words are the best you can manage. In such cases, make sure your demeanor doesn't give you away. "When you say one thing and do another, it makes you look phony," Hounihan says. "Actions always speak louder than words."

Body language communicates on a two-way street. Interviewers send out their own set of nonverbal communications. While it's important to read these cues and respond accordingly, many candidates let their insecurities skew their perceptions. This can lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings.

Don't imagine a hidden meaning in every gesture. If an interviewer rubs her nose while you're speaking, she may just have an itchy nose.

Or, as Freud liked to say, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

If you feel relatively sure that you're getting negative feedback, you probably should check it out. Just don't assume you know what the interviewer is thinking and feeling; you're likely to misread the situation. Instead, ask directly what the "offending" reaction means.

A candidate felt very unsettled by an interviewer who kept trying to stifle yawns. Finally, she asked him outright, "Am I off target? Would you like me to focus on something else?"

"You're fine," the interviewer responded. "It's my kids who aren't. They have the flu and I was up all night taking care of them."

Gestures That Relay Hidden Messages

Sometimes, oversensitivity to perceived male chauvinism can interfere with the development of a productive relationship. A CFO who stands by his chair until the women in the room are seated is considered by some women "sexist." It helps if a woman can take (and appreciate) the gesture the way it was intended, as a sign of respect and politeness. (One woman candidate likes to reciprocate by helping men on with their coats to show courtesy and respect.)

Other gestures express more overt sexual motivation. An office manager remembers interviewing with a law firm whose flirtatious senior partner winked at her in the midst of the meeting. Since she knew she wouldn't be working directly for him, she chose not to let it bother her. (After being hired, she wasn't surprised to find that the partner carried on in exactly the same way with all female employees.) Other women would have been more outraged. For them, this position would not have been a match.

Your strongest reactions may take place when the other person is talking. A common job-hunter peeve is interviewers who spend all their time talking about themselves. When an interviewer endlessly pontificates, you may find yourself getting intensely bored. Rather than yawning, getting that glazed-over look or searching around the room for something more interesting to focus on, you have to find a way to get back in the game.

Nod. Smile. Take notes. Look for interesting ways to intervene without offending. One interviewee likes to place her index finger vertically across her lips and nose as if she's saying "Shhhh." In fact, it's her way of preventing herself from interrupting the interviewer. But occasionally it's had an interesting effect on others (who thought the gesture was meant for them).

During other (more engrossing) discussions, she has a habit of cupping her chin in her hand thoughtfully, in a way that's slightly reminiscent of Rodin's "Thinker." In these moments, she conveys the impression (without ever saying a word) that she's a responsive and contemplative person.

People read our feelings through our body gestures. So, it's crucial that we take responsibility for the messages we send. Says Debra Benton, "It's a great opportunity to live the kind of employee you're going to be."

Getting in Touch with Yourself

A little objective feedback can go a long way toward remedying defects in your body language. To view yourself in action, set up a video camera on a tripod and recruit a friend for an informal conversation.

When you replay the tape, pay attention to how you come across physically. Do you make eye contact with the other person? Do you give the impression that you're listening intently? Or are you busy performing for your audience? What do you do with your hands? Are you chewing on fingernails, cracking your knuckles or making theatrical gestures?

A salesperson, who used to making public presentations, had a disconcerting experience when he viewed himself on videotape. His rude awakening came from watching his own nervous habits. He found his constant fiddling with his hair and tie "very distracting."

Once you see yourself on tape, you'll never forget what you saw. You'll probably begin consciously working to correct the things that bother you. But don't be overly critical or make yourself too self-conscious. How you talk and relate is an important part of who you really are.
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