There are several steps to nail when it comes to landing your dream job, like polishing your resume and perfecting your cover letter. Once you make it to the interview stage, give yourself a brief pat on the back, but don’t get too comfortable. How you appeal to an employer goes beyond what’s on paper. Your work experience may show your ambition and qualifications, but what does your slouching say?
Body language is a form of communication, and it pays to be mindful of the message you’re sending with it. During a job interview, you’ll want to use it to showcase not only your best professional self, but also your genuine personality.
What Is Body Language and Why Is It Important in an Interview?
Body language boils down to what you’re communicating without speaking. These nonverbal cues can include your posture and eye contact (or lack thereof) as well as toe tapping, pen clicking, and other common actions you may not think about.
“We read each other’s body language and vocal delivery to make hundreds of snap judgments that affect whether we like, trust, and respect a person,” says Muse career coach Eloise Eonnet, who’s an expert in interviewing, communication, and public speaking. “These snap judgments powerfully impact a decision of whether to hire someone or not.”
Your cover letter and resume got you to this point—now you want to fully match and hopefully exceed their expectations. The goal is to communicate strength, assuredness, and confidence at your interview, but not at the expense of being relaxed and personable. So much of that comes down to what you express beyond just your words.
“Body language is 90% of how we are perceived. We can say, ‘I am a great fit for this position,’ two times and the first time comes off as confident, poised, and knowledgeable, and the second time as unsure, nervous, and inexperienced,” Eonnet says. “All that hinges on how we say something, not what we say,” she adds, which is why your physical and vocal delivery are so important.
For example, one study that looked specifically at facial behaviors during job interviews found that eye contact and smiling were particularly important to employers. In a separate survey by the staffing firm OfficeTeam, senior managers said that after eye contact, facial expressions, posture, handshakes, and fidgeting were some of the most telling nonverbal cues in an interview.
“Facial expressions can be the most misunderstood nonverbal cue,” says Monique Sample, a coordinator for employer and experiential development at Virginia Commonwealth University Career Services. “Our faces tell more of the story than any words we use. Being mindful of how you express emotion when speaking (or when not) is important when interviewing,” she adds. “Focus on answering the question honestly, enthusiastically, and with some emotion. You do not want to look stoic in an interview.”
8 Body Language Tips for Your Next Interview
Because body language can communicate so much—and interviewers are definitely paying attention—you’ll want to be just as prepared to give positive nonverbal cues as you are to answer interview questions. Here are eight tips you can use to send the right message.
1. Make a Solid First Impression
Your interview begins as soon as you enter the building, Sample says. Just as you’ll want to treat everyone you meet during the interview process (not just the hiring manager) with respect, you’ll want to exude confidence and poise throughout (not just while you’re literally sitting down for your interview).
When you enter the office and connect with the receptionist, executive assistant, or whoever you encounter, make sure that you maintain strong eye contact and introduce yourself with confidence. If you are initially led to a waiting area, avoid the common default of hunching over your phone. This kind of body language can easily translate as boredom. Instead, sit upright in a comfortable position while you wait.
When you meet the interviewer, stand up and introduce yourself with a warm, genuine smile and a firm handshake.
2. Think Twice Before Wearing the New Shoes
Discomfort is another issue that can be very distracting for both you and the interviewer. Buying a nice pair of new shoes or a belt to match your blazer may seem like a great idea, but if your wardrobe causes you to fidget or do a lot of shifting, consider going with an appropriate but reliable option instead. Making a lot of fuss with your clothing can send the wrong signal, potentially communicating discomfort with the interview rather than your apparel.
3. Make Eye Contact
Eye contact is essential because it “showcases your confidence in yourself and in your answers,” Sample says. In practice, you should “avoid looking all around the room, looking down at your watch, or not making eye contact at all, as it makes [you] appear apprehensive and distracted.”
But it goes beyond confidence and focus. Eye contact is also the basis for making connections and building relationships. “Your listener will only feel truly engaged with you if you are looking at them, and ultimately, your number one objective is to engage your listener and make them respond—even internally—to what you are sharing,” Eonnet says. “Without steady eye contact throughout the conversation, and especially at the beginning of your answers, you’re breaking that connection and impacting how emotionally connected your interviewer will be with what you share,” she adds. “At the end of the day, the interview is just a conversation with another human being. Make a strong connection at that level, and you are doing yourself a huge favor!”
On the other hand, remember that maintaining unwavering eye contact without any variation in your facial expression is just staring and can make an interviewer uncomfortable or even signal hostility. Which brings us to this next tip.
4. Be Responsive and Listen to Understand
It’s only natural to want to tell the interviewer all about yourself and the accomplishments and experiences that make you the perfect candidate, Sample says. But don't forget to listen empathetically and engage with what the interviewer is saying as well. They'll be looking to assess your interpersonal skills along with your experience and other qualifications, and how you behave when you’re not talking is an important part of the impression you'll make.
The goal is to stay alert and responsive. “When interviewing, lean slightly forward toward your interviewer. This sends the message that you are open, interested, and involved in the conversation,” Sample says. Giving a genuine nod can show you’re listening and tilting your head slightly to one side can help you come across as someone who’s friendly and approachable.
5. Remember Your Posture
“The way we hold our bodies tells lots of stories at an unconscious level: Is the person confident and engaged, or is the person shy and in retreat?” Eonnet says. “Posture is the first clue and impacts the way we are heard, regardless of how great our stories are.”
Slouching in particular can translate as a lack of energy and confidence, Sample says. So make sure you’re sitting up straight and think of keeping your shoulders back rather than up. On the other end of the spectrum, “Being stiff can easily be associated with being nervous, which is something that recruiters and hiring managers expect,” Sample says. “But being too stiff can make you appear uncomfortable or unfriendly, so try to loosen up a little before your interview.”
6. Be Mindful of Your Hands
Interviewers are trying to get a sense of who you are, Sample says, so let your personality shine through! This includes talking with your hands if that comes naturally to you. Some candidates feel self-conscious about doing so, but stifling a trait like this can actually lead to unnecessary fidgeting. So feel free to use your hands to communicate effectively and genuinely.
Otherwise, when you’re not talking, put your hands in a neutral position and hold them still to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to them. “The best place for your hands to rest is on the table or desk in front of you,” Eonnet says. “This helps prevent slouching and has them be available for gesturing when appropriate. If you are taking notes, put down the pen when you are done taking notes.”
7. Exit Strong
Make sure your exit is just as strong as your entrance, regardless of how you feel the interview went. We are often our own worst critics, and it won’t do you any favors to showcase your disappointment by giving in to that slouch or looking at your feet dejectedly.
Repeat the steps from the entrance, including a genuine smile and a firm handshake, adding a “thank you” for your interviewer’s time. Place your chair back where you found it before you entered, and keep your shoulders back before closing the door gently behind you.
If the interviewer walks you to the exit or lobby, be sure to keep your energy up. You can use this time to ask general questions or make relevant small talk, whatever feels most comfortable. Even once you’re alone, if you have to wait for your elevator or ride in a visible spot, try to maintain your composure until you’re out of sight.
It’s completely OK if all of these tips don’t come naturally to you. Take the time to get in front of another person (or a mirror) and practice! Sit in your computer or living room chair (potentially in your interview outfit) and identify which position feels most comfortable. You can go through the motions with a friend and ask them to provide constructive feedback. They might notice your eyes wander a lot or you tend to play with your hands when you’re not sure about your answer. If you know your interview will be remote, hop on a video call with that pal. They can help you figure out which angles look best or let you know if you appear too stoic.
What If It’s a Remote Interview?
Many companies are shifting toward video interviews for at least part of their hiring processes. COVID-19 sparked this change for some companies, while others had already implemented it prior to the pandemic.
For some candidates, a video call eases the anxiety that can come along with the interview portion of the hiring process. Still, it can make things more complicated. Connecting virtually can be a challenge, primarily due to the fact that your regular nonverbal communication is either difficult to see or more easily misinterpreted.
But with a little prep, you can still use your body language to help communicate what a great fit you are for the job. Your posture is still important, so be sure to adjust your chair height and camera angle so you can sit straight up. Put the videoconferencing window right by the camera so you can look straight into it to simulate eye contact, and try not to look away at other notes or windows on your screen. And make sure you troubleshoot any potential setup and technical issues—such as camera angles, proper lighting, outside noise control—prior to your call to limit the need for shifting and adjusting during your interview. Fidgeting doesn’t translate well virtually either and can cause unnecessary distractions.
You can nod and smile to show you’re listening (rather than using verbal cues and inadvertently muting the other person’s microphone). And don’t be afraid to talk with your hands, even in a video interview. “Using gestures is powerful,” Eonnet says. “It helps you come off as engaged and helps your audience understand what you are saying better. Just make sure your camera is far away enough from you to not have giant hands on the other side of the screen!”
If this seems like a lot to think about on top of what you’re going to say, take a deep breath and remember: Nerves are a natural part of the interview process. But you’ve made it this far, and you have the credentials and expertise. So don’t let something like body language stand in the way of you and your next job.