“Manage Your Body Language” and 3 Other Interview Tips That Sound Smart but Actually Suck

One of our favorite parts of career coaching here at Career Protocol is preparing our clients to crush their interviews. Job interviews are where all the lessons of self-knowledge, communication, and building relationships come together in the flashpoint of a single 30-to-60-minute make-or-break conversation. We’ve helped thousands of people land their dream job, and we’d like to help you do it too. Check out our interview preparation services if you want to work with us.

No matter what your plans are, let’s debunk some terrible interview advice so you can avoid key pitfalls that will diminish your chance of success in any hiring process.

Table of Contents

Why people give terrible interview advice

Lots of very well-meaning people give terrible advice. Nowhere is this truer than in the career coaching domain (and don’t even get me started on MBA admissions consultants!). Everyone who ever got a job, or got into business school, assumes they aced their interviews and that whatever they did to prepare for the interview is exactly what you need to do. By that measure, any successful job seekers are therefore “qualified” to give interview advice.

The fact is, most of us succeed by accident, by divine providence, by serendipity, and by the laziness or desperation of others. It takes a lot of self-awareness to admit the truth: that you really have no idea what made you successful. It’s impossible to reasonably draw a cause-and-effect conclusion between your effort and the outcome.

So instead, you reverse engineer your own success without considering the specifics: who you are, your personality, your character traits, your strengths, your weaknesses, and your situation, all the advantages you consciously had and the numerous unseen factors that helped you on your way. Instead you think, “Ah! I videotaped myself! That must have been the key to my interview performance!” Dear God, no. It almost certainly was not.

Everyone’s situation is unique, so you can’t really take anyone’s advice without being circumspect and thoughtful about applying it to your life (and always with a buffer for trial and error). If you want to be successful, you have to weigh whether and how what you’re told applies to you and then incorporate it as just one more input into the GPS as you navigate the right path for you. Your path won’t be the same as mine or anyone else’s. Keep that in mind.

All that said, there are some very common pieces of advice that we can categorically trash. It’s stuff that sounds smart and reasonable, but will actually make your interview process so much harder.

Here are the top 4 pieces of interview advice I routinely have to debunk with my clients.

1.

Pay attention to your body language

You’ve probably heard the statistic that somewhere between 70% and 93% of communication is nonverbal communication. What a joke to think that something so intangible and subjective could be quantified. There’s your first piece of information to hold as highly suspect.

This statistic leads a lot of people to think (and say) that if your body language is doing most of the talking and if you want to win the day, you just have to have the “right” body language. Or at least avoid having the wrong body language. A firm handshake, good eye contact. No sweeping gestures, sudden movements, weak poses, fidgeting, scratching, or basically being human.

The ultimate upshot of this advice is that it presumes the person you’re speaking with is going to keep track of your movements and judge you by them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Think about your own experience communicating with people: Can you point to a single interaction you had in which you even REMEMBER someone’s gestures? Unless you recently had a conversation with a cabbie in Rome (or anyone in Italy if you’re not Italian), then the answer is probably no.

YouTube video

For a primer on the best of Italy’s 250+ hand gestures, watch this.

The way you physically position yourself and gesticulate in the interview is of little significance in and of itself. The primary way body language impacts the interaction is through its impact on emotion – yours and the hiring manager’s. While any stat is suspect in this arena, I would argue that up to 93% of communication is nonverbal, and about 90% of that is emotional. Humans are exceedingly good at picking up on emotional cues and having emotional reactions to what they find.

Your goal in the interaction is to make the interviewer feel good about you: to like you, trust you, and want to have you on their team. Building rapport and making a positive impression are entirely based on emotional response, and these interpersonal dynamics are the primary reason humans still do interviews in the first place: nobody wants to work with someone who looks good on paper but turns out to be a douche in the cubicle.  

 

I’m not saying that body language doesn’t matter; I’m saying that concentrating on it will tank your performance.

 

Here’s the problem with focusing on your gestures and obsessing over positive body language: You can’t fixate on your body language and communicate in a vibrant and inspiring way at the same time.

Imagine trying to tell an inspiring story of leadership while the voice in your head is saying stuff like, “OK, now raise my right hand. Oh, too high! Keep it midlevel. Now lower it. Agh, that was too fast.” This quickly devolves into, “Crap, I shouldn’t have gestured so big, next time I’ll go smaller. I wonder if she feels threatened by me. What is that look on her face? Maybe she didn’t like my answer…” and down the spiral goes. Being hyper-self-conscious and engaging in negative self-talk is interview Armageddon. If you get to that point, you can be pretty sure the cause is lost.

When what’s happening inside your head and the subject matter you’re talking about aren’t in sync, it will come across to the hiring manager. Not necessarily consciously. She might not be able to articulate it, but she will come away with an uncertain and negative feeling. She won’t feel totally comfortable with you, confident in you, and excited to spend more time with you. She’ll feel put off.

The catch-22 here is that when you’re feeling confident and good about yourself inside, your body language always works on the outside. Being hyper-aware of how others might be judging your outside causes turbulence and insecurity inside, which perpetuates a vicious cycle. That’s why this advice is so insidiously bad. It sabotages you.

The bottom line is that in an interview you need to make a positive emotional connection with the person on the other side of the table. Any advice that complicates that prospect must be chucked. Focusing too much on your body language makes it harder to be confident and present for the connection. So don’t do it. In my vast experience interviewing people, as long as the person came off as comfortable in their own skin and more or less confident (not arrogant) in who they are, they got my vote. I can’t remember a single hand gesture any one of them ever made.

2.

Film yourself and critique the game tape

If the first piece of advice was like arsenic to healthy interview performance, this advice is like napalm. If you’re already self-conscious about any aspect of who you are, from your appearance to your facial expressions or the content of your answers – and really, who isn’t? – taping yourself and then critiquing the tape might just destroy you. It could shatter your confidence, which takes days if not weeks to rebuild. Just. Don’t. Do it.

The primary reason people recommend the video-tape practice is related to bad advice Exhibit A – attending to your body language. They want you to nitpick your body language (or your vocal tone, pitch, timbre, delivery) and “improve it.” This advice is mostly propagated by those who have a vested interest in body work: theater folk, acting and voice coaches, videographers. If you want to take an acting or movement class, singing lessons, or martial arts or dance lessons to increase your awareness of your body, breath, voice, and how you move through space, by all means do it! I’ve tried all the above and found them profoundly life-altering. But please, don’t do it with the objective of improving how you look on tape in a mock interview. It will waste time at best and decimate your confidence at worst.

3.

Count and reduce your “umms” and “uhhs”

Are you noticing a pattern here? Job candidates use filler words for two reasons:

  1. We are bridging the gap of what would otherwise be a longish silence while we mentally formulate the next thing we want to say, or
  2. We are inordinately insecure about what we are going to say next and are therefore creating extra bridges per Point A.

The “umms” and “uhhs” and “likes” and “kindas” we use for Reason A are just fine – totally normal – and will barely even register in the mind of the interviewer, because they are simply part of the flow of your communication style.

Filler words for Reason B will eventually become grating, project insecurity, and engender a lack of confidence in you. Why? Because you actually aren’t confident in yourself.

Most people don’t appreciate how intelligent we are as human beings and how skilled we are at understanding the internal states of others without overt explanation. Don’t you kind of always know when someone is telling you something they don’t fully believe but think you want to hear?

Scientists to date would likely attribute this to that 70-90% of communication they call nonverbal. They might say you’re picking up the white lie in subtle gestures, facial expressions, and tonal changes that signal a partial truth on the speaker’s part. My hope is that one day science will reveal that we’re all somewhat telepathically linked and thereby picking up on the thoughts of others even if we don’t consciously know that’s what’s going on.

Whatever the physical or metaphysical mechanics of this process are, the fact remains that people are pretty darn good at reading people. When you’re not confident, when you are insecure about yourself, your counterpart will pick it up. And one symptom of a lack of confidence is the overabundance of misplaced filler words.

The remedy for this overuse of “umms” and “uhhs” is NOT to count them and consciously try to stop. That strategy is right in line with bad interview advice #1 and #2. It puts your attention on the symptom and encourages you to micromanage that, exacerbating the underlying issue rather than curing it. It would be like a doctor recommending you cure a cough by counting your coughs and trying to stop coughing instead of suggesting that you quit smoking or take antibiotics for your bronchitis.

So don’t worry about your “umms” and “uhhs.” Focus instead on knowing yourself and being prepared for the conversation. When you feel prepared, you will calm down. When you know what you’re bringing to the table and can confidently point to areas for development, you can relax. When you’ve got your answers to core questions ready, you will naturally feel more confident. Then the filler words will diminish until you’re just using them as appropriate bridges between one thought and the next.

There’s a bonus to this kind of preparation: The more you know what you want to communicate in advance, the less you’ll need to formulate and articulate your thoughts on the fly, thereby reducing even those naturally occurring filler words.

4.

Rehearse. A lot.

Hopefully by now it’s clear that in a live interview – including virtual interviews – your success hinges on your ability to foster a relationship and a positive emotional connection with the interviewer. That means you need to be relaxed, authentic, and fully present.

Spontaneity is a feature of presence. When you’re fully present and improvising, you will naturally tell a story in a way that connects with the person you’re speaking to. This has a certain vibe to it. The interviewer will feel in tune with you, like they’re sharing the experience of getting to know you.

On the other hand, if you’ve memorized or over-rehearsed your answers, they won’t be able to arrive at the feeling that the moment is shared. That’s because instead of being “out there” with the interviewer, your consciousness is focused “in here” – in your mind, alone, trying to remember exactly the right words. If you didn’t necessarily memorize and just over-rehearsed, your answers will lack vitality. It will seem like you’re going through the motions. Either one feels pretty icky for an interviewer who is focused on you and the conversation. They’ll come away just “not feeling good” about you.

It's crucial to remember that interviewers are humans, not robots.

That means they don’t have the ideal answer stored in a database against which they are checking your answer and grading it on a scale of 1 to 100. You aren’t getting full or partial credit for your answer depending on how well you deliver it. If you leave out a detail or meander a bit in the response, the interviewer will never even know!! And if they did know, they almost certainly wouldn’t care.

What we all want is to feel connected with our fellow humans. We know it when it happens, and we know it when it doesn’t. Your goal in an interview isn’t to pass a test or channel perfection. It is simply to be you – the one and only authentic you – and show up in the conversation.

It will be much, much easier to do that if you’ve thought about your answers to common interview questions, outlined stories, and reminisced about your experiences first. Check out our guide to interview reminiscing so you can prepare in the right way, take some deep breaths, and then relax and enjoy the interview conversation. 

If you’re interested in having a career coach for the journey,
let us know.

Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder of Career Protocol

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