Silent Eloquence

Silent Eloquence

The old saying, "It's not what you say, but how you say it," is true, even if you're not talking.  According to Albert Mehrabian’s oft-cited study, our verbal content provides only 7% of the message the interviewer receives; body language communicates 55% and tone of voice accounts for 38%.  Therefore, when someone says one thing and their nonverbal communication says another, we usually believe the nonverbal.

Watching your nonverbal messages while delivering brilliant and concise answers to interview questions can be difficult when you're nervous.  But, managing your body language can help you hide your jitters, and understanding your interviewers’ nonverbal cues may allow you to make adjustments before you go too far off track.

Some hiring managers claim they can spot a viable candidate within 30 seconds.  While much has to do with the way you look, it's also based on your body language.  Stand up straight, walk with assurance, confidently shake your interviewer's hand and make eye contact while saying hello.

When the interviewer offers you a seat, sit upright but not too stiffly in your chair, indicating you are comfortable and feeling confident.  Hunching down gives the impression low self-esteem and can indicate a careless attitude and lack of energy.

Sitting on the edge of your seat can come across as being nervous and tense.  Face the interviewer, pointing your knees and feet in that direction, and lean slightly forward, indicating you're alert and focused.   Don’t lean towards the door; you'll appear ready to make a mad dash for the exit.

Respect the interviewer’s personal space.  In most cases, there will be a desk or a table between you.  If not, don't get too close; two to three feet is comfortable for most people.

Excessive leg movement is distracting and indicates nervousness.  No bouncing or shaking!  Resting one leg or ankle on top of your other knee makes you look too casual and can come across as arrogant.  Avoid sitting with legs too wide apart.  Crossing your legs at the ankles or placing both feet flat on the floor conveys a confident and professional look during the job interview.

Deliberately speak slowly.  Interview jitters will naturally hasten your pace.  By concentrating on enunciating your words individually, you’ll actually achieve a normal speed.  Pause before beginning each sentence to avoid instinctively reacting and misspeaking or interrupting the interviewer.  Nerves also can make your voice higher pitched than normal, which can undermine your authority by sounding childish, overly excited, or emotional.  Vary your tone throughout the conversation, but watch your volume.

A natural smile telegraphs sincerity and sociability.  A fake smile is easily identified, however, because it uses only the muscles around the mouth.  A genuine smile shows throughout your face, especially the eyes.  Excessive smiling, on the other hand, can convey lack of authenticity.  Relax your mouth; pursing the lips shows disapproval and biting them suggests nervousness.  A furrowed brow or hard swallow before addressing a question can indicate that you are uncomfortable with your answer.

Show your enthusiasm by keeping an interested expression.  Don’t exhibit excessive emotion.  Smile and nod appropriately but don't overdo it and risk looking like a bobble head.  Tilting your head very slightly comes across as friendly and open.  Keeping it straight reads self-assured and authoritative.

If you’re unsure of what to do with your hands, rest them, loosely clasped, in your lap or on the table.  Practice a comfortable way to place your arms and hands while seated, both at a table and in a chair on its own.

However, periodic, purposeful, and controlled gestures convey energy, excitement, and passion.  Too many or exaggerated gestures can be distracting, while repeating the same movement can be monotonous.  Folding your arms across your chest suggests a closed and defensive attitude.

Fiddling with your clothes, face, or hair is unprofessional and conveys nervousness. Don’t rub the back of your head or neck.  Even if you just have a cramp, these gestures make you look disinterested.  Keep your hands away from your face; touching your nose or lips can indicate dishonesty.

Appropriate eye contact is essential and differs depending whether you are speaking or listening.  As listener, you should initiate more eye contact and hold it for longer periods of time.  Avoid appearing as if you are staring by blinking at regular intervals.  Move your head occasionally, such as giving a small nod to show you’re engaged.

When talking, hold eye contact initially for 5-10 seconds and, after that, break off and reconnect eye contact intermittently. Thus you won’t appear to be lecturing and the listener won’t feel challenged to a staring contest.

Avoiding eye contact, especially while answering a question, can convey dishonesty.  Looking downwards, except occasionally if making notes or referring to information in front of you, appears insincere or submissive.  If you need to pause and think before answering a question, looking down might suggest that you have something to hide.  Glancing upwards signifies contemplation and candor.

Body language goes both ways.  Pay attention, also, to your interviewer’s postures and movements, which can indicate how you’re being perceived.  Since nonverbal communication often is subconscious, it can serve as an early warning allowing you to redirect your efforts, if necessary, before your interviewer becomes consciously aware of any reaction.

For example, irritation is signaled first through body language.  Shaking the head, sighing, drumming fingers, rubbing the face, or folding arms and leaning back, can be signs of displeasure.  Cues indicating boredom include resting head on hand, fiddling with hands and losing eye contact.  If this happens, wrap up what you’re saying and move on.

Leaning back in the chair and clasping hands behind the head while smiling could signal condescension.  Touching the nose can show disapproval.  Looking at a watch or shuffling papers, may mean you're not on track.

Leaning toward you means the interviewer is listening and taking you seriously.  However, leaning back indicates you’re being evaluated critically.  If your interviewer suddenly switches positions, such as from relaxing to sitting upright, you may have said something that needs to be considered from a different perspective.

When people have established rapport in conversation, there’s a natural tendency to mirror each other’s facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and movement.  This tends to reinforce agreement.  People generally like people that appear similar to them. Therefore, observe the interviewer’s body language and subtly reflect it back.  Don’t be obvious about it, however, or you’ll be annoying.

Your goodbye handshake should be just as confident as it was going in.  Maintain your professional demeanor until you are safely out of view.  Don’t let a deflated slouch or celebratory “end-zone” dance negate your hard work.  Someone may be observing how you behave when you think you're not being watched.

Because most forms of nonverbal communication are subconscious, you must become aware before you can use them to your advantage. Videotape yourself or get someone to give you honest feedback in mock interviews.  Then, practice in front of a mirror until you can be confident that you’re sending the right message—verbally and non-verbally.

Valerie Fontaine
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