Big interview, hold the handshake: How body language can make a good first impression

How the rest of your body language can make a good first impression

Limp noodle. Dead fish. Wet biscuit.

A weak handshake goes by many monikers, each leaving a lasting blemish sure to overshadow even the most impressive job interview that follows.

It’s true: A good, firm handshake is the first milepost on the journey to a good impression—and the best way to start an interview. Of course, the pandemic has changed the hiring game, and as a result, those “salmon hands” out there get a free pass for the moment while we all keep our hands to ourselves.

So, while we’re pushing pause on handshakes, how else can you stand out and still make a good first impression?

Say it without saying it

As logical and data-driven as we think we are, humans are nevertheless “human” at their core, which means we rely greatly on unspoken, nonverbal communication to drive many of our reactions and feelings about other people. So, whether you’re a candidate looking for that next career move or a company searching for top Kansas City-area talent, your body language adds a lot to the conversation.

Bruce Clarke with HR management firm CAI elaborates for Glassdoor:

“Because applicants are so similar in the schools they attended, the degrees they have … the interview is an outstanding opportunity for you to differentiate yourself. The best way to do that is to use your nonverbal communication during the interview to show that you’re physically and emotionally engaged. Otherwise, it’s very easy for an interviewer to put you in that bucket with everybody else—where you’ll be anonymous and easily forgotten.”

Whether you’re preparing for an in-person interview or something virtual, pay attention to certain body language signals you may be sending and how they may be interpreted. They’re more important than you think, too, accounting for 60 to 65% of all communication.

1. Eye contact

This is one of the most important ones—even getting its own field of study (oculesics). Eye contact with the interviewer is a delicate balancing act: Too little and you seem nervous; too much and you seem intense or even threatening.

“If you have an interview with somebody for 40 minutes, and then you leave and don’t know what color their eyes are, you haven’t maintained good eye contact,” explains author Vicky Oliver. “You want to really look at them and connect, but you’re also going to look away some of the time.”

Try to keep the same level of eye contact you’d have if you were enjoying a conversation with a friend, and your eye contact will come across as natural.

Blinking is necessary, of course, but rapid blinking often indicates a person is uncomfortable or agitated in some way.

Eye contact is tougher on a virtual interview, but remember to look into your camera (instead of the screen) as much as you can, especially when answering questions. This will allow you to make a stronger connection with the interviewer, even in spite of the physical separation.

2. Posture

How you hold yourself communicates loudly, so be sure to sit up straight with your shoulders back and your legs uncrossed. You don’t want to look stiff or uncomfortable, but a good posture tells the interviewer you’re interested, engaged and excited about the opportunity.

Be aware of what you’re doing with your hands, as crossing your arms in front of your body is often interpreted as a protective pose associated with insecurity. But keeping your palms open as you talk says you’re being honest and transparent.

If you struggle with good posture (as many people do), practice interview questions with a friend or family member so you can get used to holding a good posture for an extended amount of time. And ask the other person how your posture appears from their point of view. You may not realize your bad habits unless you actively look for them.

3. Facial expressions

How’s your poker face? Unfortunately, the vast majority of us are at the mercy of what researchers E.A. Haggard and K.S. Isaacs have dubbed “microexpressions.” These tiny changes in our facial interactions last only fractions of a second, yet can still provide an external display of how we’re feeling, how truthful we’re being, etc.

Nervous about talking about your past work history? Your face may answer the question even before your words do, so practice those tougher questions in front of a mirror so you can be ready when they inevitably come.

Practice makes perfect

I have no doubt we’ll get back to shaking hands soon, but in the meantime think through how the rest of your body is communicating on your behalf. Do you like what it’s saying?

Whether you practice with a friend, work with a staffing expert, or even video yourself, take the time to work on your interview skills. Make sure every part of you is always sending the right message.

(And leave the dead fish at home.)

Harry Brewer is director of the Accounting & Finance Team at Morgan Hunter, serving Kansas City-area employers to help them meet a range of hiring needs, from temporary staffing to direct-hire placements. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @MorganHunterCo.