[IWC] Post 7: Nonverbal Communication and Professional Presentation

Now that you’ve conquered scenario-based behavioral questions and open-ended interview questions, it is time to move on and go over the ways that you communicate without saying a thing. In this post, I go into the importance of keeping your appearances in check during an interview. In the practice portion, you’ll have a chance to combine what we go over here with your responses to the questions in the previous two posts and rate yourself in a mock interview. So grab your workbook and let’s get started!

The old saying “Action speak louder than words” proves true for interviewing, as your nonverbal communication during an interview is just as important as your verbal responses to the questions. You can say all the ‘right’ things and be highly qualified for the position, but if you don’t seem like you want it then your chances of getting an offer are slim.

So how do you seem like you want the job? Here are four ways.

Be enthusiastic for the position.

The purpose of the interview is to convince someone to hire you, but nobody wants to hire a candidate who doesn’t convey that they want the job they’re interviewing for. Being sullen or matter-of-fact about the position could come across as you not really wanting to do it, even if that’s not true. Just because you took the time to apply doesn’t mean your job is done. You need to sell your interest for the position.

The easiest way to show enthusiasm is to smile. Smile in appropriate places when you talk about your experiences and tell your stories. Pep up your demeanor when answering questions by being expressive with your eyes and tone. (This advice is helpful even if you’re on a phone interview because when you smile your voice changes.) If you find yourself doing an impression of April Ludgate or Daria Morgendorffer, then you’re doing it wrong.

This may seem of feel disingenuous if you’re an introvert or naturally reserved, but you have to amp-up your personality in interview settings because that’s what gets you hired. I’m not saying that you should become a bubbly ball of pep for the sake of employment! But if your natural energy level is at a 3, try to bump it up to a 6. Use your nerves to give you the energy you may not normally have. As long as your responses are authentic and real, then you aren’t being fake. You’re just playing the game.

Make eye contact with your interviewers.

I can’t count on my fingers and toes how many times I’ve done mock interviews where the participant spoke more to the floor or their shoulder than they did to me. Eye contact is one of the most important nonverbal skills for having a successful interview because it conveys confidence and self-assuredness. These soft skills are critical for workplace success in the vast majority of industries, and the only way an employer will know that you have them is if you show them in your interview.

Your eye contact must be natural, or else you’ll look like a creep. Don’t stare down your interviewer! It’s okay to look away sometimes while your thinking, and be sure to blink in natural intervals. If there is more than one person interviewing you (which is very common), then be sure to engage each one by looking around the room while you’re responding. Meeting eyes with everyone is a great way to acknowledge their presence.

Note: Maintaining eye contact with people in positions of power is a distinctly Western convention, so if you’re not in the United States or Europe then this advice may not be the best route to take in an interview. In some cultures, this is extremely disrespectful and could cost you the job. When in doubt, do what is culturally appropriate for your location and audience.

Take notes during the interview.

In addition to your resume, cover letter, and list of questions for the interviewer, you should always bring a pen and a pad of paper to an interview. Use these tools to take notes throughout the meeting. If the interviewers say something interesting or ask you a question that you’ve never encountered, write it down. You can use this information for the thank you notes you’ll have to write post-interview, and also for your own professional development.

Taking notes is also a great way to show that you’re paying attention (or force yourself to pay attention if your interviewer is particularly long winded). Even if you have a great memory and know that you’ll be able to recall the conversation, remember that the interviewer doesn’t know this about you. Writing things down makes it clear that you’re in it to win it. (It = the job.)

Dress for interview success.

On top of this in-interview behavior, you also need to dress the part. Now, I’m not one to ever tell folks how to dress. (Look around the rest of the blog – nary a “dress like this” post in sight!) I’m a firm believer in production over packaging when you’re at work, so I’m not the one to come to for fashion advice. The key phrase of that last sentence, however, is “when you’re at work.” If you already have the job, your presentation doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does when you’re interviewing.

So how should you make your sartorial decisions come interview day?

Use your research! Figure out the standard dress code for your industry and go one step above the position you’re interviewing for. Don’t wear what the people in the job wear since you’re not in it yet. If you’re interviewing to be an auto mechanic, don’t show up in an oily jumpsuit! Khakis and a button up shirt are fine. “Professional” means different things for different positions and industries, so you shouldn’t default to a suit.

Other appearance considerations

In addition to clothing, hair, makeup, and scents should also be taken into consideration. Scent is easy – don’t wear perfume or use heavily perfumed products prior to an interview. Because, allergies. If your interviewer is sensitive to smells or if you accidentally use too much, it could be distracting and off-putting to the people you’re meeting with. For makeup, use the same rules you went by when deciding what to wear. Unless you’re interviewing for a position where your appearance is part of the job description, you should err to the side of natural.

Hair is a tricky one since it can be seen as a political statement. This is especially true for women of color, since our hair has historically been used as a tool of our oppression. Certain textures have been deemed unprofessional, thus mandating women to damage our hair to make it more acceptable or risk not being able to work. While such explicit rules are slowly being relaxed (pun kind of intended), they are still in place. A court recently ruled that employers can legally deny jobs to people with dreadlocks, which is a hairstyle that is indicative of the African diaspora. (As a personal example, I have loose coily/curly hair and have been told by interviewers that it is a “distraction.” It happens to all of us.)

While research can inform your hairstyling choices, keep it within reason. Don’t shave your dreadlocks or chemically change your hair because an employer may not like it. If they don’t, then is that really a company you want to work for? Make that decision for yourself.

Now practice!

The exercise that goes along with this post is one of my favorites. First, you’ll need to go back to the previous exercises and pull up your responses to the prompts. Then, you have to pick a few questions and record yourself (video and audio) answering them with your prepared answers. Once you’re done, watch the video and use the mock interview rubric to score yourself. Repeat this process until you are satisfied with your performance.

I love this activity because it both helps you practice and helps you get an idea of how you come across in an interview. Having a the third-person view of yourself is immensely useful. If you don’t like what you see, then you have a chance to change it before it costs you a job!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.