Several career experts spoke with me recently about factors that separate out successful job search applicants from those that aren't. One thing we all agreed on: the value of effective nonverbal behaviors.
The way you come across to the interviewer or employer sends a powerful message about you and how much you care about the job search process.
Most of us know to avoid the obvious problems -- don't arrive at an interview dressed poorly; without showering; reeking of alcohol, cigarette smoke or perfume/aftershave; or chewing gum, listening to your iPod, or talking on your cell phone. But there are other factors that can make a difference as well.
Here are a few tips:
• Your nonverbal persona starts while you wait for your interview. Be friendly, pleasant and polite. Sit quietly (no phone calls or texting) and patiently. Avoid fidgeting or looking impatient (getting up and down, walking around, bothering the receptionist by constantly asking when you will have your interview, etc.). Often, interviewers will ask the receptionist for his/her opinion of you.
• The first few minutes are really important. Your interviewer will form impressions about you from your posture, handshake, eye contact, clothes, shoes and accessories, usage of space, attentiveness, tone of voice and facial expressions. When you are practicing how to answer questions and getting feedback, also get constructive feedback about how you come across nonverbally.
• Practice a firm handshake -- not one that is sticky, sweaty or wimpy. Having a confident handshake signals a positive demeanor while a limp handshake signals low confidence and low self-esteem. An excessively strong grip may convey that the person is overly aggressive.
• Limit hand gestures. Your hands should sit on the table, possibly gently clasped together. When your hands are together with your fingers interlocked it shows self-confidence and that you are comfortable. Don't fidget with them or do the "power pyramid" since you do not want to be seen as intimidating. Also, don't talk too much with your hands or it may take away from the content of your answers.
• Make eye contact, but not too much. Avoiding eye contact may appear that you are evading or trying to hide something. On the other hand, too much eye contact (direct staring) can seem confrontational or intimidating. Some communication experts recommend intervals of eye contact lasting four to five seconds in order to show interest, warmth and credibility.
• Lean in. Keep your back straight and maintain your posture. Slouchy posture speaks loudly about sloppy work and low self-esteem, and gives the impression of low energy and carelessness. Lean forward a little to show interest; if you lean back it may come across as too casual.
• Avoid nervous gestures, such as shaking your leg up and down, tapping your fingers on a desk, awkward or loud laugh, clearing your throat, etc., try to do your best to avoid them. Interviewers do expect nervousness, but when you are answering an important question, you do not want to appear nervous, which can take away from the strength of your answer.
• Keep your facial expressions positive or thoughtful -- and smile. If you smile frequently you will be perceived as more likable, friendly, warm and approachable. A good smile will relax your interviewer just as much as it shows a positive attitude, and so a smile during your interview is a good way to build points with the interviewer.
• Don't crowd your interviewer. If you are too close to the interviewer and have invaded his/her space, they will be uncomfortable and you will not fare as well. You always want to be far enough that the interviewer is comfortable.
• Use the right tone of voice. It should not be too loud or too soft. Be clear and concise; don't mumble. Dull, monotone talking has a tendency to make you appear unexciting. On the other hand, speaking up and changing the tone of your voice makes you appear engaging.
• Use the mirroring body language technique. If you subtly mimic the interviewer's body language, it shows that you're fully present. For example, if the person doing the interviewing leans forward, lean forward. If they lean back, do the same. But the key here is subtlety; don't be an obvious copycat.
Remember that the image the interviewer has of you when he or she first meets you is the one that is going to last. If you're slouchy or overly aggressive it won't matter how well you answer the interview questions. You are not going to get the job. In job interviews or job fairs, make sure to practice the best nonverbals, get someone to provide you with constructive feedback when you practice, work on improvements, and then use the right nonverbals during the job search process. It could be just what clinches the job for you.
• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.