Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms

Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
March 08, 2010

Editor's note: This is the ninth article in a series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys. Links to previous articles in the series follow this article.

The adage "It's not what you say, but how you say it" is true, even if you're not talking. In interviews you need to effectively communicate your professionalism both verbally and nonverbally. It's been said that your verbal content provides only 7 percent of the message the interviewer receives; body language communicates 55 percent and tone of voice accounts for 38 percent.[FOOTNOTE 1] Therefore, when someone says one thing, but their nonverbal communication says another, we usually believe the nonverbal message.

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 probably appear as if you're 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.

A clear and controlled voice is easier to understand and conveys assurance. 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 to 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.


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 will be signaled first through body language. Shaking one's head, sighing, drumming fingers, rubbing one's face, or a folding of the arms and leaning back can be signs of displeasure. Cues indicating boredom include resting of one's head on a hand, fiddling with hands and losing eye contact. If this happens, wrap up what you're saying and move on. Other cues that you can pay attention to: leaning back in the chair and clasping one's hands behind the head while smiling could signal condescension; touching the nose can show disapproval; and looking at a watch or shuffling papers may mean you're not on track in the interviewer's mind.

Paying attention to an interviewer's leaning can help you too. 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 the interviewer thinks 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 who 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 become 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 nonverbally.


FN1: The "7%-38%-55% Rule" comes from a 1971 study by Albert Mehrabian. Mehrabian currently is a professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles.


Read other articles in the "Interview Strategies" series:

  1. Interview Strategies: the Basics
  2. Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups
  3. Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb
  4. Interview Strategies: Facing and Acing a Panel Interview
  5. Interview Strategies: The Challenges of a Coffee 'Date'
  6. Interview Strategies: Get Ready for Your Video Close-Up
  7. Interview Strategies: Navigating the Question Minefield
  8. Interview Strategies: What Questions Should You Ask?
  9. Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms
  10. Interview Strategies: Handling a Callback
  11. Interview Strategies: Taking the Show on the Road
  12. Interview Strategies: Be a Powerful Closer
  13. Interview Strategies: A Flawless Follow-Up