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Aleksandra Sobic of Mankato, Minnesota was thrilled to interview for a position with a company that facilitates and guides international tours, based out of Thailand.
“I nailed the first round phone interview, and then was asked to interview via Skype. I dressed in business attire and did my hair and makeup,” says Aleksandra.
After the interview, she learned she wasn’t the right candidate.
“They were worried I may not be rustic enough for the position,” she says. “They felt they couldn’t see me traipsing through the jungle!”
Whether your mistake is not dressing jungle chic enough—or not bothering to get out of your PJs—make no mistake, remote interviews are harder to prepare for than regular ones.
And these days, making a good first—or fifth—impression isn’t necessarily done in person. Remote interviews and business meetings are becoming more common in today’s workforce. According to a 2012 Census Bureau report, about 13.4 million U.S. workers currently work from home. CNN Money reports that the number of people who work at home at least one day per week has increased in 2010 to 9.5%, up from 7% in 1999.
So, sooner or later, you’ll be involved in a remote interview or asked to present your points at a meeting you’re not physically present for. Just how do you make a great impression from a distance?
1. Look the Part
As Sobic learned the hard way, gauging the company culture—from afar—becomes a key skill when trying to nail a remote interview. Since you’re not there physically (experts estimate that 90% of the cues we give off are non-verbal), looking the part becomes even more important.
First, do your research: Check out the company’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to get a feel for how employees (and executives) dress and behave, then take your cues from that when prepping for your interview.
Next, clean up, says Sherif Hussein, president and creative director of Jinni Communications in Ottawa, Canada. If your at-home appearance leans toward casual, take some time to polish up. It’s always better to err on the side of freshly-scrubbed—even if you’re an aspiring trek leader, carefully dressed in her best khakis.
“I work a lot from my home office, so my beard is almost always too long, my hair isn’t combed, and I’m not properly dressed,” admits Hussein, who makes a point of looking the part when he takes a professional call.
Assuming your bottom half will be hidden under a desk, you may be tempted to wear your favorite sweatpants, but it’s best to dress from head to toe. What if you have to stand up to adjust your equipment? There’s also the psychological aspect: Shedding your loungewear will help switch your mind to professional mode.
2. Prepare Your Surroundings
Whether your call is video or telephone, do it in a quiet, businesslike setting, ideally in a room with a door.
“Look behind you, because that’s what [they’ll] see,” says Hussein. A cluttered background may distract your audience, not to mention send the wrong idea of your organizational skills. Also, rid the area of personal items—no need to share too much information. A blank or neutral background is best, with a well-organized desktop.
Be sure to inform anyone else at home about the meeting; you don’t want to be interrupted by a sudden blast of stereo music or someone bellowing your name. Feed and walk the dog ahead of time, and call a sitter (or a neighbor) if you have young children.
3. Practice it First
Your first few video calls are bound to feel awkward as you figure out where to look, what to do with your hands, or how loudly to speak. But it’s easy to work out those kinks ahead of time.
“Conduct a practice interview with a friend, and record it so that you‘ll have an accurate idea of how you come across on video,” advises Cheryl Palmer, career coach and owner of Call to Career, a career coaching service.
Analyze your tape (you can practice using a free service like Skype) and repeat the process until you feel comfortable with the result.
4. Don’t Forget to Smile!
At an in-person interview, you’d naturally smile upon arrival and try to keep a pleasant facial expression for the duration.
It’s more difficult to do this with a remote interview. Lacking a "live" person in front of you and sidetracked by thoughts of equipment or cameras, you might be less likely to smile reflexively. If that’s the case, you can seem like you’re staring wide-eyed at the camera.
“Smiling is the best way to break the ice and develop rapport with your interviewer. And on the phone, your smile will come through even though the interviewer can’t see you,” says Palmer.
Of course, it’s difficult to smile sitting alone in a room. Just before the call, loosen up by smiling before a mirror, or call a friend who never fails to make you laugh. If you need to, hang a silly picture or Post-it note on the wall (out of camera range) to remind you to stay upbeat.
5. Stay Present
Ever heard of active listening? Especially with a phone interview, it’s important to give the other caller periodic clues that you’re still there. After all, do you like speaking into silence?
Palmer suggests interjecting listening sounds (“hm,” or “yes”) as your interviewers speak. In addition to making your conversation more pleasant, it also reassures the other party that the technology is functioning correctly and you are, indeed, still listening.
And even though the people can’t see you, never tinker with your computer during a call. Nothing screams “not listening!” like the tapping of a keyboard in the background. Even if other callers are engaging in a side conversation, follow along so you can jump back in as soon as it’s appropriate.
6. Go Ahead and Cheat
One advantage to a video or phone interview is that you don’t have to remember everything you want to mention.
“You can have notes in front of you—without your interviewer knowing,” suggests Ben Cober, director of business development and research at PGAV Destinations in St. Louis, Mo. “Place your resume in front of you, [and have ready] news about the company, questions you want to ask, and potential talking points.”
Of course, you don’t want to be reading off the page verbatim, so make sure you’re familiar with your material and keep your notes in an easily scannable format to get what you need at quick glance.
7. Address Tech Problems Immediately
When you’re relying on video or phone equipment, there’s a good chance you’ll experience a technical glitch: a weak connection, interference, or garbled signals.
You may hesitate to draw attention to the problem, but you don’t want to give an inaccurate answer because you didn’t understand the question. A simple “Excuse me?” works fine. But if the problem persists, bring it up.
“If you’re getting too many blips, it’s good to stop the call (and redial),” says Cober. “The future employers may take away that you’re a problem-solver, and you would provide top-quality service if employed by them.” Not to mention that fixing this kind of issue is just plain polite.
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