Michael Tally, a 31-year-old sales manager at a New Jersey-based packaging firm, walked down the long hallway leading towards his office, eyeing up the three candidates in folding metal chairs. “Two were nervous-looking, ruffling through papers in neat manila folders,” he recalls. It was the morning of the third and final round of interviews for the newest member of his sales team and there was a lot on the line. Nerves were normal.
What he saw as he passed the third candidate, a twenty-something woman, neatly dressed and armed with her resume, was not. “She was picking at her split ends,” Tally says, “Literally, snapping off the ends of her hair and dropping them on the ground.”
“I hate to prejudge people, and I knew she was completely unaware of what she was doing. But since the position was my call I can say with absolute certainty that it cost her the job.”
“Every person has physical habits—in poker, you might call them ‘tells,’ says public speaking expert Matt Eventoff. “Many of them are fidgets, for some people they’re grooming gestures or postural things like a slouch.” In everyday life these habits are no big deal, he says. But in an interview setting they can become a distraction, taking the hiring manager’s focus off of your talents and onto your… bad hair day. “You’re in a high-stakes situation with a stranger, he says. “There’s a lot of pressure and an imbalanced power structure.” If there’s ever a time to get distracting (or worse, offensive) habits under control, this is it.
The experts agree that aiming for a neutral posture is your best bet. “Leaning back suggests boredom or lack of interest,” says Karen Friedman, author of Shutup and Say Something: business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners. “People typically lean into a conversation when they like someone, so leaning back can signal the opposite.
But beware overcorrection for your lounging ways. Experts agree that leaning forward can be just as problematic, as it can seem overly solicitous or even threatening. “Don’t crowd the interviewer by leaning in too closely or over his or her desk,” cautions Amanda Augustine, job search expert at TheLadders.com.
Instead, aim for a neutral spine, says Eventoff. “Posture should be the classic ‘sit up straight,’” he says, as if a string were tied from the top of your head to the ceiling. “It seems so simple, but it’s amazing to me how many people ignore this important advice,” says “charisma coach” Cynthia Burnham, whose expertise is in helping top-tier executives polish their public appearances. Standing or sitting up straight sends a message of self-assuredness—but it also makes you appear taller, which around the world is seen as a sign of smarts, confidence and credibility.
“Avoid chopping gestures,” says Burnham. “Whole arm karate chop gestures can psychologically cut up the space between you ad your interview in an aggressive way.” While not all of us have a tendency to “karate chop,” there are variations of the martial arts move. Pointing is often perceived as an aggressive motion and in some cultures is considered incredibly rude. Eventoff says any fast, repeated or aggressive hand gestures should be kept to a minimum.
As in posture, erring on the side of caution in an interview setting can also be problematic. If you shove your hands in your pockets, behind your back or even crossed in front of your chest you run the risk of appearing closed off, stiff or belligerent. “You should appear open and approachable,” says Friedman, “which means your hands should be in front of you and ready to gesture naturally.”
“Grooming gestures are common in high-pressure settings,” says Eventoff. “It’s just nervous energy and a natural desire to appear your best.” And for the most part, he says, they’re not even an issue. These small movements or habits—playing with one’s hair, fingernails and jewelry—only become a problem when they are a distraction to the interviewer.
But Eventoff says these nervous habits, which seem so intrinsic and unavoidable, are, in fact, the easiest to kick—at least for the limited time window of a job interview. When I tell him of the incredible urge I feel to repeatedly tuck my hair behind my ears when stressed or uncomfortable (think: interviews, too-swanky nightclubs and dates one through three), he tells me to pull my hair back. “I always tell people to avoid rings, watches and jewelry for exactly this reason,” he says. “If it’s not there, you won’t play with it. If you don’t play with it there’s no chance of distracting your interviewer, which will keep his attention where it should be: on your conversation.”
“I can say with certainty that the body language I find to be the most damaging in an interview setting is facial gestures,” Eventoff says. From eyerolls to staring to darting, beady looks, the secret of successful interview communication is all in the eyes.
“Don’t stare,” says Augustine of TheLadders. “While it’s important to be confident and look the interviewer in the eye, but locking eyes with someone for an extended period of time can be interpreted as aggressive, not to mention a little creepy.” Cynthia Burnham’s rule of thumb here is a good one. “We break eye contact when we feel a connection kick in,” she says. The next time you feel that “click,” she says, hold eye contact for just a moment longer and then beak away. “Do this especially when shaking hands or meeting someone for the first time,” she says. It shows just the right level of engagement—without a whiff of creep. Of course (and now this is becoming a familiar tune), avoiding all eye contact to keep from staring is also a bad tactic. Shifty, beady-eyed looks aren’t ones to be trusted, and the experts agree that a question answered while staring at a bookcase or glancing at your smartphone is an opportunity lost. “You’ve basically handed your interviewer a reason not to like you,” says Eventoff. “If your interviewer appears distracted during a meeting it may be rude, but it’s forgivable. If you appear distracted or disengaged, forget about it.”
In toto, the best bet for managing your body in all of its quirky weirdness in an interview is to practice moderation. Moderate posture, moderate gesturing and a moderate level of eye contact are the neutral canvas you can use to tell your story—and to sell your best self to win the job.
But the first step in fixing your flaws is accepting them. If after all this advice you’ve found yourself questioning your every move, you’re not alone. What are your bad habits? Are you a hair tucker like me or a karate chopper or a sloucher? “Your friends aren’t going to tell you this stuff unless you ask them,” Eventoff says. “And even then, they might not want to offend you.
No, like in all things, you are your own best and worst critic. Eventoff says to take the time to video a mock interview to get a sense of your performance under pressure. Grab a good friend and your smartphone and spend five minutes practicing answering questions on-camera (Eventoff’s only tip is to take it seriously or you won’t project the right amount of nervousness for your habits to kick in). Play it back and watch for habits that might be distracting.