Simply being the most qualified person for a job isn’t good enough these days.
Interviews are performances: improvisatory scenes in which the primary roles and traits of the characters are sketched out beforehand. “The hiring manager” has presumably read your resume, and you, “the job applicant,” have done your homework on the company. Your goal is to make sure that the scene plays out in such a way that, when it’s all over, you’re sure to be recast as “the perfect candidate.” And that’s why a heightened attention to your body language, and its potential effect on your co-star’s psyche, is crucial. Think of body language as the non-verbal signalling system that, if mastered, can trigger a positive reaction in the mind of the hiring manager before you’ve even said hello.
Let’s take a look at some of the more obvious ways body language can help or hinder your chances of stealing the scene.
1. Making a bad first impression
You should be in character before you’ve even introduced yourself to the receptionist, and should remain in character while sitting and waiting for the interview to begin. Slouching, biting your nails, pulling out your hair – these should not be in your repertoire of visual cues. You want to signal that you are the type of person who is self-possessed and alert, which is most easily conveyed by mastering the erect yet relaxed look: torso straight, shoulders back, head perhaps slightly cocked to one side to indicate a thoughtful disposition.
For those of you who have any doubts about how well you’re executing these non-verbal cues, experts consistently emphasize the importance of rehearsing beforehand, especially with a trusted friend who can offer constructive criticism. Receiving objective feedback will help you refine and perfect your performance before you hit the stage.
2. Failing to make eye contact
As neuroscientists tell us, mirror neurons in the human brain can cause a person to act (and feel) in a way that “mirrors” the behaviour of another person with whom they’re interacting. This, of course, is why body language is so important, and why, as soon as you’re introduced to the hiring manager, the nonverbal attitude you should try to have mirrored back should convey the following verbal equivalent: “Oh my god! It’s you! How wonderful!”
Failing to make eye contact is ranked as the top body language mistake by hiring managers (67%), so don’t be shy. And, not surprisingly, next on the list is forgetting to smile (39%), so be prepared to show some teeth in as non-threatening a way as possible.
3. The handshake: follow the Goldilocks principle
This is arguably more about ritual than body language signalling, but since it receives ample attention from many others in the advice-giving business, I thought I’d mention it.
Simply stated, your handshake should be neither too hard nor too soft, but somewhere in-between. Again, practice with a friend for feedback on your performance. And then, if necessary, watch a video or twenty on YouTube – because, yes, there are at least twenty videos on YouTube demonstrating how to execute the perfect handshake. Who said the internet wasn’t good for anything?
4. Using the wrong kind of gestures
The interview itself demands some truly multivalent body signalling abilities. The erect yet relaxed look that you assumed while waiting to be called in, is now combined with a variety of visual cues, designed to convey a comfortable (but not too comfortable) familiarity, as if the two of you are acquaintances suddenly discovering how much you actually have in common. What makes this portion of the performance so complicated is that it entails not only the skillful use of eye-contact and carefully timed smiles, but also the integration of further improvisatory gestures, such as: the fascinated nod; the emphatic furrowed brow; the slightly incredulous head-shake, etc. And note: hand gestures should be kept to a minimum. Everything your body does should obviously be indicative of a focused and engaged nature. Fidgeting in your seat, neurotically touching your face, or playing with something on the table: not good.
5. The smooth departure
If you’ve made it to the wrap-up portion of the scene without making any body language mistakes, you’re pretty well home free. All you have to do now is perform the same routines you’ve already mastered: the handshake and the eye-contact/smile – with perhaps the slightest hint of fleeting disappointment fluttering across your face to indicate the pain of parting, but also the hope of a longed-for reconciliation. This latter manoeuvre, however, may prove too subtle for the non-professional. Further training may be required.
After final nods to both the hiring manager and the receptionist, head off stage with a steady, confident gait – and, whatever you do, DON’T LOOK BACK. That sort of thing just looks desperate.
And that’s all there is to it. If you’ve performed the basic repertoire of nonverbal signals skillfully – while simultaneously dazzling the hiring manager with your verbal dexterity – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be nominated for a Tony. Whether you actually get the job, though, is ultimately dependent on your co-star – and, unfortunately, the mind of a hiring manager is often an unfathomable mystery. All you can do is give it your best shot.
Break a leg!
– Follow Workopolis on Twitter
– Sign up for the Workopolis Weekly newsletter