Nonverbal Communication: Dos & Don’ts for Job Seekers

nonverbal communication for job seekers

Overview

Nonverbal Communication: Dos & Don’ts for Job Seekers

Let’s talk about nonverbal communication. Don’t feel like reading? Listen here!

Did you know nonverbal communication accounts for 70% of the message you convey in any average face-to-face encounter? It’s true. The weight of nonverbal communication for the job seeker is heavy, especially during job interviews. If you don’t get the nonverbal aspect right, the employer may not hear your message clearly at all, even if you provide perfect verbal responses to interview questions. 

What encompasses nonverbal communication for job seekers? And how can you ensure you get it right?

Nonverbal Communication: The Gist for Job Seekers

Nonverbal communication is, of course, only one part of the total package of competent communication. Competent communicators know how to share their messages in effective and appropriate ways. 

One of the greatest disconnects happens when we’re saying all the right words but not matching our words to our actions; this includes our body language, voice tone, inflection, facial expressions, and other aspects of nonverbal communication.

As job seekers, it’s imperative to match your words to your actions if you want to effectively and appropriately communicate with employers. You need to pay attention to nonverbal communication not just during job interviews but throughout every stage of the hiring process. When you master nonverbal communication skills, you indicate a strong level of career readiness.

Networking opportunities can quickly morph into embarrassing disasters if you aren’t mindful of your nonverbal cues. You might introduce yourself to a potential employer using all the right words, but if your voice is too unsure, your handshake is too weak or too strong, or if you never smile, the employer will most likely mentally categorize you as “not hirable.”

work meeting

The same goes for every interaction you have on-site leading up to your job interview. If you drive onto the employer’s site and park haphazardly, your action is telling the employer you aren’t conscientious or considerate. If you nod repeatedly and interrupt the receptionist who gives you directions or instructions, you may be viewed as rude or overly anxious.

So how can you ensure that your channel-rich communication—communication involving more than just words—comes across as clear, confident but not cocky, concise, and competent? You need to work on being mindful of your nonverbal cues, matching your cues to your words, and practicing your nonverbal communication skills before you ever interact with potential employers.

Here are some common dos and don’ts of nonverbal communication.

Dos for Nonverbal Communication

Make Eye Contact

Most of us only make eye contact 30-60% of the time when carrying on conversations. But did you know that in order to truly connect with others, we should up that percentage to 60-70?

Keep in mind, though, that even the best communicators only make eye contact 70% of the time. Staring someone down who is interviewing you is NOT the secret to job search success. That’s the secret to letting an employer know that you either a) cannot find the right balance when making eye contact or b) you’re a creepy stalker. You really want to avoid giving either impression.

Practice makes perfect on this one (and on all other nonverbal cues). Regularly spend time with real people face-to-face. When you do, practice looking at others in the eye at least once every 30 seconds. This might feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to it, but after a while, you’ll find it more natural to make and maintain eye contact. And that can go a long way in demonstrating strong communication skills to your potential employer.

Work on Your Handshake

It’s imperative to practice shaking hands until you find a happy middle ground between too strong and too weak. It’s important because others will draw conclusions about your personality, insecurities, and character traits based on your handshake.

Two African-American men shaking hands after a successful job interview

The bottom line is that a brief, firm handshake is best. Note that communication experts agree there’s a difference between firm and aggressive. You want to make a good impression on the employer, not crush their fingers.

Mix Up Your Facial Expressions, Voice Tone, & Inflections

While you certainly don’t want to wear your emotions on your sleeve (or your face), you also don’t want to wear a deadpan expression. The absence of emotion, fluctuation in voice tone, and changes in inflection can signal to an employer that you’re a one-note candidate. You’re way too eager and energetic. Or you’re way too much like Eeyore and will bring down your colleagues.

Don’t stay in one place when it comes to expressions, tone, and inflections. Smile periodically. Allow your face to rest in between smiles.

Posture Yourself Confidently

Your body position and posture also communicate things to the employer, whether intended or not. Reclining, or leaning back, may signify that you’re an observer and prefer taking your time before taking chances. But it can also signal that you are aloof and don’t care about getting involved. 

Take time to learn what scientists have discovered about body position and posture before you go to your next job interview or networking event.

If you’re interviewing or mingling with people who live in another country or area of your country, read up on the culture and any dos and don’ts in that culture. This can help you avoid awkward, taboo situations which may feel really embarrassing. In some cultures, for example, people shake hands with only one hand. In other cultures, men do not shake hands with women.

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with sitting up straight if you’re physically able and placing your hands in your lap.

Show Up Fairly Empty-Handed

When you’re interacting with others, you want to keep at least one hand open at all times for shaking hands. This applies to networking events and interviews. 

Many people make the mistake of not eating before a networking event.

job interview

Then they fill a plate with hors d’oeurves and juggle a drink, too, keeping themselves unavailable for handshakes and other interactions.

The same goes for interviews. You definitely need your car keys, a pen, and a notebook, including a list of questions for the employer. Bring nothing else. If you must bring your phone, silence it during the event or interview. Consider carrying a satchel or small purse to hold these items. This will keep you from juggling items, or worse, dropping something and having to crouch down to pick it up.

Dress & Groom Yourself in a Neutral Fashion

Wearing a wild pattern or clunky jewelry might appeal to you because you have an eclectic personality and want the world to know it. However, rethink that decision when you’re preparing for a job interview. 

While employers want to get a taste of who you are, they primarily care about your skills and qualifications, as demonstrated during the job interview. How do you demonstrate those? Through your verbal responses to questions, by asking good follow-up questions, and keeping your nonverbal cues in check.

It’s a good idea to dress neatly, groom yourself meticulously, and avoid any strong odors, bright colors, flashy patterns, or distracting accessories. This goes for jewelry, shoes, ties, and hair accessories.

You want the employer to remember what you say and how you say it. You do not want to be the candidate employers gossip about later and refer to as “the lady in the fluorescent green blouse” or “the guy who reeked of smoke.”

Don’ts for Nonverbal Communication

Each of us does something obnoxious, off-putting, or distracting with our facial expressions, hands, posture, or voice tone. These are distracting mannerisms. If you can become aware of your own distracting mannerisms and tendencies, you will have a better chance of quieting them to avoid distracting your future employers during job interviews.

Interrupt

The greatest distraction during an interview is an interruption. We often think of interrupting as a verbal interjection, jumping in during the middle of someone’s question or spiel. But interruptions take nonverbal forms, too.

You’ll want to avoid interrupting in all its nasty forms during job interviews and networking events. When you interact with employers, you want to give the impression that you’re listening and are completely focused on the interaction. 

You can avoid nonverbal interruptions by being as still as possible, drinking water to avoid coughing or constant throat-clearing, and by dressing appropriately and neutrally. You’ll also want to ensure your phone is on silent and that you carry your keys, phone, pen, and notebook in a bag or purse, so you don’t jingle keys or drop objects.

Distract the Employer with Your Mannerisms

You can also give a really negative impression by continually distracting the employer. How can you stop doing something you’re barely aware you’re doing? By practicing. 

This is why mock interviews and regular, face-to-face interaction is key. Start paying attention to what you do with your hands, whether you wiggle when you’re sitting in meetings, or if you have any other distracting habits. And ask others for feedback. Sometimes our family members can easily pinpoint our distracting mannerisms while we’re blind to them.

online interview

Some common distracting mannerisms include:

  • Clenching or wringing your hands
  • Picking at your cuticles or biting your nails
  • Pacing or shifting back and forth
  • Keeping your hands in your pockets or crossed over your chest
  • Clicking a pen or tapping on the table
  • Gripping the table or lectern
  • Licking your lips or biting your lip
  • Twirling your hair
  • Adjusting your necktie or other accessories or clothing items
  • Touching your face or adjusting your face mask (if one is required during the interview)
  • Shifting your eye contact continually

Let Your Face Show Your Feelings

One of the worst things you can do is make it obvious you’re frustrated, bored, annoyed, or nervous through your facial expressions. Think of your face as a billboard for the employer. What do you want the employer to see on that billboard?

Most job seekers want the employer to see confidence, a calm demeanor, and a focused mind. It does take practice to learn to control immediate facial reactions, so start practicing now.

Forget Basic Courtesies

One of the best ways to make a good impression during a networking event or interview is by displaying good manners.

Hold the door for the person behind you or anyone carrying an armload. Avoid interrupting others. Nod politely at appropriate times to indicate you’re truly listening. Don’t talk with food in your mouth.

If you find it tough to do these things, read up on interview etiquette or networking etiquette. Then look for opportunities to practice these skills.

Chew Gum or Talk with Food in Your Mouth

This really goes along with basic courtesies, but one of the fastest ways to signal that you’re NOT the right candidate is to chew gum during an interview or to talk with food in your mouth (or chew with your mouth open) during a meal with an employer or during a networking event.

If you discover you tend to do these things without thinking, and you find it tough to stop these habits, then by all means, do not eat at networking events. Chew gum until you arrive on-site if you’re concerned about having fresh breath, or carry a small bottle of alcohol-free mouthwash in your purse.

Overlook Details of Appearance

Most job seekers are pretty keen about selecting a decent interview outfit. But many people struggle with the details of appearance and overlook aspects that can really distract the employer. When you aren’t 100% pulled together, appropriate, and clean, you give the impression that you simply don’t have your ducks in a row.

When you’re preparing for the interview, think about your appearance from head to toe. Clean hair that’s neatly fixed. Groomed brows. Clean skin and minimal makeup. Socks that match your shoes. You get the picture.

Mindfulness & Nonverbal Cues

Building greater mindfulness of your nonverbal cues while communicating with others can be tough. But the work pays off when you feel more confident, communicate more effectively and appropriately, and perform better during job interviews.

Building awareness of dos and don’ts regarding nonverbal communication during interviews and networking events can help you pay more attention to your own behaviors and tendencies. 

We all have areas of deficiency related to nonverbal communication. Most of these are habits we have built over time. Sometimes we need outsiders to help us hone in on which of our nonverbal cues aren’t serving us well. This requires we receive constructive criticism with an open mind and that we don’t hesitate to ask for input from others.

work professionals

Seek feedback about your nonverbal communication from people you regularly interact with at work, in your community, or within your peer group. Then note any deficiencies mentioned repeatedly. Did three people mention your inability to make or maintain eye contact? Work on that.

If you feel intimidated about asking for feedback from others, try recording yourself interacting with others with their permission. This could be during a mock interview setting or just during a conversation with a group of friends. Watch the video back and compare yourself to the list in this article of dos and don’ts for nonverbal communication.

Your preparation and increased awareness will pay off when you make a positive impression, smoothly sail through the job interview, and land a great new job.

Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace partners with mission-minded organizations to build better workplaces through soft skills solutions. Bethany aids leaders in strengthening workplace relationships through communications consulting, training, executive coaching, keynote presentations, & career coaching. Bethany enjoys presenting research at conferences and contributes regularly to major publications & recognized podcasts, including Glassdoor, College Recruiter, Zip Recruiter, Jobscan, FlexJobs, the New York Daily News, BusinessTech, Human Resources Online, Life After Teaching, Love Your Story, The Conversation Guy (10 Minute Mindset), Everyday People Podcast, The Success Chronicles, and more.

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