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Ace the Interview, Get the Job

Featured Article by Julie Levin 

Congratulations, you’ve made it! You’ve trudged your way through four years of college course work, donned the black cap and gown and posed for the obligatory graduation photos. You are now ready to take on the world. And with your diploma, resume, and $40,000 of student loan debt who could be more employable or eager to work than you? Unfortunately, even with a highbrow, top dollar education, finding a job in this floundering economy is no easy feat. So I sat down to talk with Patti Wood, a successful entrepreneur and leading expert on body language to find out how to get your foot in the door. Here are some of her best tips for making a lasting first impression and acing your first (or fortieth) job interview.

Julie Levin: So Patti, the question on every girl’s mind…What do you wear to an interview? Does it matter what field the job is in?

Patti Wood: Yes, it matters significantly. My advice is to dress one or two levels up from whatever would be appropriate in the day-to-day work environment in that particular office. You can also follow the general rule of dressing according to the highest level of dress for that job—for example, what would you be expected to wear to a convention or business meeting? On the other hand, you don’t want to dress any more than two levels up from the interviewer out of respect for him or her. Also, if you are older and overdress for an interview your employer may interpret that as being out of touch with the current business culture. Keep in mind that it is perfectly okay to ask in advance what the appropriate attire for the interview is. Incorporate this question into initial conversations with the interviewer along with other inquiries such as directions to the office.

JL:  Along the lines of showing respect to your interviewer, what’s the best way to address him or her?

PW: I would say it’s always best to mirror your interviewer in terms of their level of formality. Otherwise, using Mr. or Ms. First and last name is a safe bet. When in doubt, air on the side of formal.

JL: Does that also extend to your conduct in general during an interview? Is it ever acceptable to share jokes or personal anecdotes if the interviewer does so?

PW: That depends on the status level of the interviewer – Will he or she be your boss or is it a human resources person? The level of formality will also be directed by the individual interviewer’s personality. But it general, don’t go to extremes on either end. Sometimes I have people tell me they think an interview went really well, but in fact they got too chummy and informal. To avoid launching into a personal story that may make sidetrack the interview, you may need to respond to questions about your non-professional life with a simple, but polite, “I’d love to talk about that some other time…”

JL: And physically how should an interviewee position themselves so as to appear professional yet comfortable?

PW: Well you definitely want to sit comfortably. To achieve the highest levels of cognition you should place both feet firmly on the ground. It is actually easiest to utilize both hemispheres of the brain when you are sitting this way. Also, you should be aware of the amount of space you take up. Don’t take up significantly more space than the interviewer if he or she is in a position of authority. At the same time you don’t want to appear too small, which women may sometimes do. The brain is able to pick up on these body language cues and will then produce certain chemicals to deal with stress it is sensing. As a result you will sound more stressed and less powerful. I often tell clients to “fake it till you make it,” meaning adopt powerful, confident body language even if you are a nervous wreck. Temporarily acting self assured (certainly you do not want to put on an act for the entire interview) will cause your brain chemistry to positively adapt to your more confident body language.

JL: You often address gender differences in body language and nonverbal communication styles in your articles and programs. I was wondering, as a woman, is there any distinction in the appropriate way to conduct yourself during an interview?

PW: One thing to keep in mind is the difference in perception in the level of eye contact between two men versus between a man and a woman. Men extend initial eye contact for at least three seconds to establish who will be the alpha male.  If a woman tries to make extended eye contact with a man she has never met the man is likely to interpret it as a come on.  In this way, eye contact between genders can have the same implications as physical contact (too much may be interpreted as a come on). The best policy is to maintain ‘Look, Look away’ eye contact rather than staring.  Try to be aware of things you may do subconsciously that betray your nervousness. Women tend to do protective gestures such as placing a hand on their chest (men do the same thing, but with a hand on their throat) when they get nervous. Bouncing your feet or twisting your legs is also a give away.

JL: (untwisting my own legs) I’ve also heard that one problem women have in the work place is that they’re perceived as having type-A personalities or as being domineering whereas a man exhibiting the same characteristics would be heralded for his confidence. Is that also an issue we should be aware of in an interview setting?

PW: What I tell my clients, both male and female, is to be confident but soften your body language at the beginning and closing of the interview. If people have told you in the past that you come off as domineering, just concentrate on how you’re entering and exiting the interview and try to be more approachable during these portions. It would be overly taxing to think about it the whole time, and the interviewer is mostly to take away the impression he or she formed in the first few seconds, and then toward the end of the interview. Along those lines, I would strongly recommend that you don’t rush the end of your interview—you want to remain calm the entire time and always shake hands in closing. Even if you have already done it once up, if your interviewer walks you to the door, shake hands again.

JL: So the interview ends and then we’re supposed to send a thank-you note, right? Does it matter if it’s written or sent electronically?

PW: Send a quick electronic thank you in which you mention that you will follow up with written contact. And then DO IT!

JL: Got it. Anything else prospective employees should know before heading into an interview?

PW: Practice. Practice. Practice. Try dry runs if you are not used to interviewing, and if possible video tape it and then have a friend watch it with you so they can critique your performance. You may have little nervous habits that you do not even pick up on. Finally, women should not bring purses.

JL: Really?

PW: On average we make sixty movements when we sit down and have stuff. Men make approximately 14. Instead, bring a leather-bound notepad with a pen and your resume. Men should put keys in their suit pocket. Don’t carry a key ring with tons of things on it – you don’t want to fidget or jingle. It will make you seem disorganized.

JL: Wow, there is so much I never would have thought of. Well thank you Patti for your time. Between my $40,000 a year education and your tricks to appear more confident and professional, landing that dream job is beginning to seem a bit more attainable. On that note, anyone hiring?

Patti Wood, MA, holds a B.A. and MA in body language and has been a highly sought after professional speaker and trainer since 1982. To learn more about the programs she teaches on body language and nonverbal communication, or to buy her book Success Signals, visit her website at