You could say all the right things during a job interview, but if your body language sends the wrong message, you won’t land the job. Interviewers might not consciously hold your body language against you, but they will form opinions about you based on cues from how you move and hold your body without even realizing that they are doing so. The way you carry yourself or make gestures could leave interviewers with a nagging sense that you won’t fit in, can’t be trusted or won’t hold up under pressure. Even people who normally have no trouble making strong first impressions sometimes flub job interview body language because the pressure affects how they hold themselves.
Smart body language strategies for job interviews…
Move decisively as the interview begins. There often are moments of uncertainty immediately before a job interview officially starts. Examples: Should you walk into the interviewer’s office or wait at the door to be invited in? Should you extend your hand for a handshake or wait until a hand is offered? Should you take a seat or wait to be asked to sit? Which seat should you take?
It’s normal to hesitate for a second as you consider these options—you don’t want to do the wrong thing. But your body language will reflect that hesitance, creating an impression of someone who’s indecisive or anxious—you might make stuttering movements…your eyes might dart around…or your stride might falter. First impressions are lasting impressions, so this momentary uncertainty could damage your chance of landing the job before the interview even begins.
Instead, decide in advance what you will do or make a fast choice in the moment, then move forward with confidence. Occasionally, you might make a wrong choice, but there usually is no wrong choice—often the reason it isn’t clear what to do in situations such as these is that any reasonable option is acceptable.
Warning: Move with purpose and confidence from the moment you arrive at the company’s premises—even in the parking lot. Some employers ask receptionists, assistants and/or security guards their opinions of interviewees because they want to find out what job candidates are like when they don’t realize they’re being evaluated. Example: I know a corporate president who goes up to interviewees at her company’s reception desk and asks whether they would like a coffee without disclosing who she is.
Make hand gestures with open palms at navel height. Hand gestures below navel level seem disengaged and passionless. Hand gestures much above navel level can make us seem overwrought. Gestures at approximately navel level strike the proper balance when sitting or standing—they seem calm and focused.
Symmetrical gestures—gestures that feature the same movement from both hands and arms—are best. Gesturing with one arm and not the other (or gesturing differently with each arm) sends a mixed message that the interviewer’s brain might struggle to interpret. That mental struggle could leave him/her feeling uncertain about how to read you—even though he won’t realize that your arm gestures are the reason for this feeling. Also, when you gesture, open hands are better than fists, which seem aggressive.
Bonus: The interviewer might not be the only one who interprets your navel-height, open-hand arm gestures as a sign of calm focus—your own mind might receive the same message. Studies have found that our body language and facial expressions are not just a result of how we feel but also can influence how we feel.
Sit up—not forward or back—in your chair, and position the chair properly. Leaning forward can seem overly aggressive, and leaning back seems disengaged. If seated at a table, position your chair so that your torso is approximately the width of a hand with fanned-out fingers from the table’s edge. That’s close enough that you won’t seem disengaged to the interviewer…but not so close that your navel-level hand gestures, described above, will be hidden beneath the table. People tend to feel nervous when they can’t see what strangers are doing with their hands.
When not gesturing, place your hands on the table…or in your lap if you’re not seated at a table. Do not cross your arms across your torso, which seems defensive and closed off.
Weed out nervous tics and things that look like nervous tics. Repeatedly touching your face…swinging a leg or foot…tapping a finger…and/or licking or biting your lips can send signals of anxiety. If you’re prone to leg or foot swinging, position both feet flat on the floor rather than cross your legs when seated. If you’re a finger tapper, fold your hands loosely together. If you’re a lip licker, apply a little lip balm before the interview—you’re less likely to feel the need to lick moist lips. Anything you can do or think to calm yourself should cut down on these nervous tics, too.
Make extended eye contact. Conventional wisdom holds that if we make too much eye contact, we’ll seem threatening and off-putting. In truth, there’s no such thing as too much eye contact. Prolonged eye contact sends the message “you’re of interest to me,” which is a positive message during a job interview. The trouble comes when people accidentally pair extended eye contact with aggressive body language such as leaning forward in one’s chair or making closed-fist hand gestures—the combination of aggression and deep interest is indeed off-putting.
Tip: If you’re being interviewed by more than one person at the same time, share your eye contact equally among the interviewers. Our natural inclination in job interviews is to give most of our eye contact to the person we believe is highest in the corporate hierarchy or who seems most positive toward us. But that person might not be the key decision maker when it comes to filling the job.
If you write something down during the interview, explain why you’re writing. Think about how uncomfortable it feels when an interviewer jots something down during the interview—is he/she writing something good about me? Something bad? The uncertainty can trigger anxiety. If you jot something down during an interview, you could be making the interviewer feel similar discomfort—and making interviewers uncomfortable is never beneficial. Example: The interviewer stresses something about how the corporate culture differs from the culture of other companies in the sector. You could respond, “That’s a good point—I’d like to jot it down,” as you pick up your pen and pad.
Warning: Do not hold a pen and pad throughout an interview. That can make you seem like someone without ideas of his own who just writes things down that other people say. Holding objects also makes it difficult to gesture symmetrically with open hands, as described earlier. If you wish to keep a pen and pad handy, set them on a table in front of you or on the chair next to you…or leave them next to your seat in a pocket of your portfolio or bag where you can reach them quickly if needed.
Send a strong parting message. As the interview progresses, be on the lookout for signs from the interviewer that the interview is over. Most interviewers make this clear by standing up and/or thanking the candidate for coming in, but others send subtler signals that they are ready for it to be over…and become frustrated when these are not heeded. Subtle signals could include checking the time repeatedly…asking the interviewee if he/she has any more questions…or long silences. If you suspect the interview might be over, ask the interviewer, “Is there anything else I can provide to you?”
Reminder: Your palms may get a little sweaty during a job interview. So when you rise from your seat at the conclusion of the interview, subtly brush your palm against your pants leg or skirt to dry it off before the final handshake.