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Is Your Body Language Costing You The Job?

I ran into an old colleague a few days ago – literally.

We actually collided going into the same coffee shop. 

As luck would have it, we both had some time to kill, so we took a seat and started visiting.

I told him all about the work I do, connecting PhDs with the strategies to get hired in industry. 

He’d since gone on to work in human resources as a manager at one of the Global 500.

We talked about things we wish we’d known after graduation – the importance of things like networking and creating a powerful resume for industry.

“You must talk a lot about body language in your methodology, right?” he asked.

I thought about it. 

“I’ve touched on it, definitely,” I told him. “What do you mean, exactly?”

My old colleague, it turns out, is passionate about educating others on the impact their body language has on others’ perceptions of them.

He explained that, working in talent management, he’d become something of a human lie detector with the help of body language analysis. 

“When I first started out,” he explained, “my major litmus for what makes a good candidate was who came prepared.”

“But now, in my tenth year in HR, I know that job interviews are a little like playing poker: everyone has tells.”

“Their hands, their eyes, their posture – it’s all part of the performance. People show how much they believe in their own answers through eye contact, posture, and hand gestures.”

I kept thinking about what he’d said after we shook hands and parted ways. 

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that body language is a part of the job interview process that we don’t talk about enough.

Body Language Says What Words Won’t

Many PhDs understand the importance of preparing what they are going to say in networking and interview situations.

But no matter how much research you do about the company or how much you practice giving great answers, it won’t count for anything if you’re coming across as unlikable.

Subtle body positioning, the way you move and gestures you make unconsciously can cast even the most qualified candidate in an unflattering light.

Psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s communication theory reveals that the success of an in-person interview breaks down to 55% body language…

…38% paralanguage or intonation (things like sighing or pauses between answers)…

…and a mere 7% verbal communication.

This means that the actual words you say account for 7% of your likability. Meanwhile, 55% of your credibility is determined by body language.

Your appearance, facial expressions and hand gestures all work in tandem to paint a picture of you. 

The effects of nonverbal communication extend beyond what others think of you.

There’s also a direct correlation between how you express yourself nonverbally and how much confidence you have in yourself.

A report by Forbes, for instance, demonstrated that people who have good posture and sit up straight don’t just project more confidence, but actually feel more confident.

Focus On Controlling These 5 Elements Of Your Body Language

You may have already known that body language gives others clues about who you are, how they can expect you to act and your emotional state. 

But did you know that this happens on both a conscious and a subconscious level?

Experts estimate that the average person’s behavioral vocabulary consists of about 138,000 nonverbal and visual cues. 

Those same specialists estimate that we can only control about 150 to 200 of those expressions – and we can only do that about 15 to 20% of the time.

And most people are completely unaware of these small habits.

They don’t know that their stride comes across as arrogant or that they restlessly tousle their hair.

I have been told on more than one occasion, for example, that I look angry or annoyed when I am expressionless. 

I would have no idea if someone hadn’t told me. 

So how do you take control of the messages you’re sending with your body language? 

How can you even know which of your thousands of nonverbal cues you’re using and when?


Practice makes perfect. 

It might feel remedial, but make no mistake – a job interview is a performance. 

It’s theater, not an oral book report; you need to rehearse to get it right.

To refine your delivery and determine where your hangups lie, you’ll need to either film yourself answering questions or ask a friend to conduct a mock interview with you.

That’s the best place to start. 

Knowing what areas you need to improve on is absolutely key to mastering how you present yourself.

With a little self-awareness and enough rehearsals, your body language will back up what you’re saying, not contradict it.

Before you put your body language under a microscope, let’s review five of the most common nonverbal missteps that can derail an otherwise stellar interview.

Experts say that we have more control of our body language above the waist, so we’ll start there.

1. Eye Contact

Eye contact is important in any social situation, but it’s essential to a successful interview. 

Maintaining eye contact shows the recruiter that you are engaged, and it also helps you establish a connection with them. 

It also conveys your level of confidence and demonstrates that you are not easily intimidated.

Avoiding eye contact is just as powerful. 

If you look down, it’s likely to make you seem untruthful or give the impression that you’re generally insecure.

Glancing around, according to body language experts, signals a lack of interest. 

To strike a balance between looking away too often and flat-out staring, you should try your best to mirror your interviewer’s level of eye contact.

If there’s more than one interviewer, you want to divide your eye contact between them. Obviously look at the person speaking, but spread your eye contact out to include anyone else sitting in once you begin answering their questions.

2. Facial Expressions

There’s no better way to publicize what you really mean than a passing expression that you didn’t mean to cast.

Mirroring is a less effective tactic when it comes to facial expressions, so as a rule you want to focus on conveying a friendly, approachable attitude with yours.

Your nonverbal communication comes into play starting with your face. 

Smiling, of course, is the most common suggestion body language experts give to help put others at ease. 

A genuine smile will set a tone of gratitude for being invited to an interview and excitement to be there, all without ever having to say so. 

Nodding in agreement can show that you are listening or simply understand what was just said – perfect for situations where you’re just listening to facts about the company and the position.

You can also use facial expressions to show you are actively listening. Tilting your head to the side suggests you are processing what’s being said. 

Raising your eyebrows implies interest or conveys that you’re impressed. 

Obviously, you’ll want to avoid negative facial expressions. This includes things like frowning, furrowing your eyebrows, chewing the inside of your cheek or biting your lip.

These behaviors give the impression that you are stressed, upset or trying to self-soothe. 

They don’t give the impression of a calm, cool-under-pressure employee who can’t wait to start work.

Laughter in an interview is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if your interviewer is cracking jokes, it’s great to share in their mirth.

But sometimes nervous laughter can get the better of us. 

If you find yourself laughing frequently, you may be trying to force the good feelings that you associate with laughter onto your interview. 

Try to bring your focus back to the moment. Let your laughter settle into a smile and focus on being attentive, not jovial. Nod, tilt your head, and allow the situation to reset itself.

3. Posture

It can be easy, when you’re considering the nonverbal cues you’re sending, to assume that your posture is the one thing you don’t need to worry about.

After all, it’s literally standing and sitting. How can you screw that up? 

But according to a survey shared on TopResume, 33% of hiring managers had weeded out a candidates based on the way they carried themselves.

After years of working at a bench or sitting and writing at a desk, PhDs often have poor posture.

This is definitely to your detriment. 

When you slouch, you give the impression that you lack confidence in yourself and your abilities.

But, as a PhD, you are highly skilled. You have many advantages over other job candidates.

Do not let your body language suggest otherwise.

When you take a seat, sit up straight with shoulders relaxed, down, and pulled back. Your chest should protrude just slightly.

Wait for the interviewer to invite you to take a seat, and then sit all the way against the back of the chair. This should help you keep proper posture throughout the interview. 

You also want to lean forward slightly, even if your interview is not in-person. Leaning in when you’re listening or responding to a question demonstrates your interest and engagement. 

Take care not to lean back or to one side – this indicates you are being flippant or feel bored. 

Avoid crossing your legs at the knee – this can come across as uptight or defensive. Also, don’t rest one ankle atop the opposite knee – this posture is a little too casual.

Keep both feet on the ground, and avoid bouncing your leg – it can be incredibly distracting and many interpret this as a sign of anxiety.

4. Handshake

If the culture condones it, a handshake is appropriate for most in-person interviews. 

It’s a respectful greeting, and it is expected in a first meeting.

Your firm, 2- to 3-second handshake should be accompanied by a genuine smile and eye contact along with a verbal greeting such as, “It’s so nice to meet you.”

Before you shake someone’s hand, do a sweat check – are your palms greasy or moist? Be sure to wipe them first. 

Pro tip: A glass of cold water before the interview can help lower your body temperature and keep you from overheating and risking a damp grip.

Do not try and grip too hard – this is perceived as aggressive and can start your interview off on the wrong foot. 

But don’t be too floppy either. A withering handshake sends a message that you are timid and will crumble under pressure.

A third handshake faux paus is the fingers-only variety. This usually happens by mistake, but can be awkward for both parties. Avoid this by making sure the webbed part of your hand (between your thumb and forefinger) is touching your interviewer’s hand before you begin to close it.

Double-handed handshakes are too familiar – reserve these for good friends. 

And a fifth handshake fail is the downward palm. Extending your hand faced down forces your interviewer to meet your grasp with palm up – a gesture of supplication or submission. This is considered an aggressive gesture – don’t do it!

3. Fidgeting And Hand Gestures

During an interview, or while networking in person, make sure you have full, conscious control over your hands and feet. 

You don’t want to be stiff and robotic, but you do want to make sure your gestures are natural and controlled.

Your goal is to communicate that you are open, calm and confident using your body language.

But you can’t do that if you’re fidgeting. Fidgeting sends an unmistakable message – this person is nervous and has problems with self-control. 

Do not touch your face, rub your neck, bite your lip, clean your ears, or play with your hair. 

These distracting movements give the impression that you are insecure, easily distracted and have trouble concentrating.

There are a few things you can do if you already know this is going to be a struggle for you.

One way to prevent yourself from fidgeting is to fold your hands in your lap. You can also place one forearm atop the arm of the chair (if there is one), or on the table.

However, avoid folding your arms across your chest – this is a sign of hostility.

Showcase Competence By Controlling Your Tics And Mannerisms

Hiring managers conduct interviews to filter out candidates who come across as awkward in person. 

Negative differentiators like poor body language will make you an easy target.

That’s why, if you want to stand out above the 250+ candidates that apply for any given position, you need to take control of your body language.

For many of us, that means suppressing nervous tics and bad habits.

That might sound easier said than done – after all, interviews can be absolutely nerve-wracking. 

You can rest assured that the person interviewing you knows this is a stressful experience.

They know you’re on edge. 

They’re going to cut you a little slack.

But with so much on the line, it can’t be overstated that what you do can raise a red flag to employers. 

Keeping your bad habits in check, at least during your interview, is the key to demonstrating your competence and composure. 

Concluding Remarks

Your body language can tell those around you so much about what kind of person you are. It speaks to your confidence, your personality and your attitude as well as how you feel about others and the things they say. If you’re serious about a career in industry, I seriously encourage you to spend some time familiarizing yourself with your own body language. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it will take some time to recognize your areas of opportunity. Practice with a friend, record yourself or try out a mock interview tool. It can take work, and it might even feel a little ridiculous, but practice really is the best thing you can do to pinpoint what you, specifically, can do to put your best foot forward. Keeping your facial expressions, eye contact, handshake, posture and nervous tics under control will ensure you’re remembered for your strong presence and confidence during your next interview.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published three bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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