Refocusing Attitude Can Calm Nerves
You’re not alone in your nervousness. Most people — including me — start out with a case of the shakes when interviewing or making a speech. When I began giving speeches, I could feel my throat drying up as panic fried my memory banks. I knew I had to go out and orate to promote my media careers column, but doing so was not my idea of fun.
Then one day things changed. I was in Florida addressing a group of career counselors when a teacher with whom I shared a podium watched me shake my way through my remarks. The teacher, herself an accomplished speaker, took me aside after the program and delivered one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. The teacher explained that nervousness is caused by the fear of looking ridiculous to others. She said:
When you are nervous, you are focusing on yourself. Try to focus on how you are helping other people by sharing with them the knowledge you’ve acquired.
You’ve been privileged to gather information not many people have. Think about serving others, not about yourself when you’re on stage.
Her simple words of wisdom were an epiphany, a wakeup call. Thanks, Teach, for putting my nervousness into perspective.
How can you use that perspective? By realizing that preparing for a job interview is not unlike preparing for a speech or theatrical performance.
Three steps to fright-free interviewing
Aim for a flawless performance by following three basic steps in your interview plan.
- Memorize your basic message.
Get your skills and competencies, accomplishments, and other qualifications down pat. Rehearse until you’re comfortable answering questions and you’ve practiced your basic presentation techniques. Rehearse until you know your self-marketing material cold.
- Personalize each self-marketing interview pitch.
Research each potential employer to customize your basic presentation for each job.
- Spotlight your audience.
Focus on how your talents can benefit your audience. Don’t worry about how imperfect you may appear. Making your audience the center of attention goes a long way toward writing “The End” to your nervousness.
More techniques to stop stressing out
When stars of the theater walk on stage, they claim the stage from wing to wing, backdrop to footlights. With confidence and charisma, they win the audience’s undivided interest. In a phrase, stars have stage presence. They are comfortable on stage.
Career coaches offer a variety of suggestions to get your butterflies flying like Air Force Blue Angels, ranging from relaxation techniques to visualization exercises. Here’s a list of ideas that may be just what you need:
- Deep breaths are an instant stress reliever. Take a deep breath, breathing from your toes all the way through your body, and then slowly exhale. Repeat twice more, for three deep breaths in all.
- Clench your fists. Hold for three to five seconds. Release. Releasing your hands relaxes your shoulders and jaw. Repeat three times.
- Push away anxiety. Go into a nearby restroom and lean into a wall like a suspect being frisked in a cop show. Push hard, as though you want to push the wall down. Grunt as you push. Speech coaches say that when you push a wall and grunt, you contract certain muscles, which, in turn, reduces anxiety. Don’t let anyone see you do this exercise, though — an observer may think you’re loony tunes.
- Visualize the outcome you want. Top athletes often use visualization techniques to calm jitters, improve concentration, and boost athletic performance. They picture in their mind opponents’ actions and strategy, and then picture them countering the maneuver.
A golfer may run a movie in his head of where he wants the ball to go before he takes a swing. For an interview, you can visualize meeting the interviewer, answering and asking questions, closing the interview well, or even being offered the job on the spot.
- Combine relaxation with visualization. Visualize a quiet, beautiful scene, such as a green valley filled with wildflowers or a soothing garden with a waterfall. Inhale and think, “I am.” Exhale and think, “Calm.” Breathe at least 12 times. Next, recall a successful interview experience.
Before an interview, free your mind of personal worries — like paying the mortgage or picking up your kid after school. When your personal concerns can’t be handled immediately — and most can’t — write them down and promise yourself that you’ll deal with them after your job interview.
Practicing with a Video Recorder
Discover yourself through an employer’s eyes. With a friend feeding you expected questions, practice your answers using a video-recording device.
Video-recording devices range from computer-connected video cams with microphones and smartphones with recording software, to camcorders that both record and play back, to full-blown theater systems.
You don’t have to rush out and buy some gee-whiz new technology. Use whatever device is available to you that will record and play back an hour-long picture and audio. Your performance is the message, not the system you use to make it happen.
Recording a practice session enables you to see how — with image improvement and mannerism modification — you can look alert, competent, and confident. You can refine actions that turn on hiring action and eliminate those that turn off hiring action. As I discuss next, body language has long been overlooked as a tool in the hiring calculus, but it’s now beginning to be recognized as a critical component. Rehearse nonverbal as well as spoken messages, and keep an eye out for the following image-detracting actions:
- Leg swinging
- Foot tapping
- Rocking from side to side
- Fiddling with your hair
- Waving around nervous hands
- Leaning back
- Crossing your arms
- Bowing your head frequently
- Darting your eyes
- Blinking slowly (comes across as disinterest or slow thinking)
- Touching your mouth constantly
- Forgetting to smile
Use the following techniques to put your readiest foot forward:
- Look interested when you’re seated by leaning slightly forward with the small of your back against the chair.
- Look the interviewer squarely in the nose, and you appear to be making eye contact. You look open and honest. More earnest honesty is communicated by upturned, open palms.
- Pause and think before answering a question to seem thoughtful and unflappable.
- Refer to your notes, and you’re seen as one who covers all the bases. Just don’t make the mistake of holding on to your notes like they’re a life preserver.
- If you find your voice sounds tight and creaky on tape, try warming up before an interview or your next practice run: Sing in the shower or in your car on the way to the interview. La la la la. . . . Maybe you shouldn’t sing on the bus.
Unlock the Power of Body Language
Carol Kinsey Goman is one of the business world’s foremost authorities on body language. An executive coach, popular author, and keynote speaker, Dr. Goman explains a phenomenon that you probably haven’t thought much about.
In a job interview, two conversations are going on at the same time.
The second conversion, the nonverbal one, can seriously support or disastrously weaken your spoken words.
Fascinated, on behalf of job seekers everywhere, I interviewed Dr. Goman. Here are my questions, followed by Dr. Goman’s answers:
How quickly does body language impact your interview?
Immediately! Starting with the first steps you take inside the interviewing room, interviewers make judgments about you within seconds. The precise number of seconds is debated by social psychologists and interviewing professionals — it’s complicated.
But most researchers and first-impression observers agree that initially sizing you up requires mere seconds. In that wisp of time, decisions are made about your credibility, trustworthiness, warmth, empathy, confidence, and competence.
While you can’t stop people from making snap decisions — the human brain is hardwired in this way — you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favor.
What can you say in seconds, other than “Hello”?
Obviously, you won’t impress anyone by what you say in time measured by seconds. Instead, it’s all about what you don’t say. It’s all about your body language.
But if you fail to score during the first impressionable seconds, can’t you recover your chances later in the interview?
A poor first impression is hard to overcome, no matter how solid your credentials or impressive your resume.
So how can you do well in an interview from the get-go?
Here are powerful ways you can make a favorable first impression.
- Command your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Think about the situation. Make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to communicate. Attitudes that attract people are friendly, cheerful, receptive, patient, approachable, welcoming, helpful, and curious. Attitudes that deter people are angry, impatient, bored, arrogant, fearful, disheartened, and distrustful.
- Stand tall. Your body language is a reflection of your emotions, but it also influences your emotions. Start projecting confidence and credibility by standing up straight, pulling your shoulders back, and holding your head high. Just by assuming this physical position, you will begin to feel surer of yourself.
- Smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable.” Smiling influences how other people respond.
The human brain prefers happy faces, recognizing them more quickly than those with negative expressions. Research shows that when you smile at someone, the smile activates that person’s reward center. It’s a natural response for the other person to smile back at you.
- Make eye contact. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. A simple way to improve your eye contact in those first few seconds is to look into the interviewer’s eyes long enough to notice what color they are. With this one simple technique, you will dramatically increase your likeability factor.
If you feel uncomfortable looking into an interviewer’s eyes too long, look the interviewer squarely in the nose, and you appear to be making eye contact. You communicate openness and honesty.
Caveat: Although good eye contact is excellent body language, don’t try for a laser lock on the interviewer. Imagine two cats in a staring contest — in the Animal Kingdom, nobody moves until somebody swats. Break the tension by periodically looking away.
- Raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes slightly more than normal to simulate the “eyebrow flash” that is the universal signal of recognition and acknowledgment.
- Lean in slightly. Leaning forward with the small of your back against the chair shows you’re engaged and interested. We naturally lean toward people and things we like or agree with. But be respectful of the other person’s space.
- Shake hands. This is the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s also the most effective. Research confirms that it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake.
But make sure you keep your body squared off to the other person, facing the person fully. Use a firm — but not bone-crushing — grip with palm-to-palm contact. And hold the other person’s hand a few fractions of a second longer than you are naturally inclined to do. This action conveys additional sincerity and quite literally “holds” the other person’s attention while you exchange greetings.
What are some of the top flops in body language?
Avoid signs that indicate nervousness, submission, or weakness.
- Projecting agitation: Try not to fidget or change positions frequently. Don’t bounce your legs, lock your ankles, or rock from side to side. Don’t dart your eyes, blink in slow motion, or blink abnormally fast. Never wave your arms with hands over your head to make a point because it implies that you’re out of control.
- Looking disinterested: Overcome any tendency to cross your arms, which suggests disagreement or disbelief, especially when leaning back. Avoid continually bowing your head, as though you are saying, “I have no idea of the right answer” or “Poor me.”
- Seeming unsure: Standing with your feet close together can make you seem timid. (Widen your stance, relax your knees, and center your weight in your lower body, to look more “solid” and sure of yourself.) Avoid hanging on to your laptop, purse, or briefcase as though it was toddler Linus’s security blanket in the Charlie Brown comics.
- Appearing tired: Slumping in the chair is a really bad idea. “Slacker” is the first thing that comes to mind if you’re a member of the Gen Y generation, and “old timer” arises if you’re a boomer.
- Suggesting arrogance: A nonverbal signal of confidence is holding your head up. But if you tilt your head back even slightly, the signal changes to one of looking down your nose at the interviewer or job being discussed. Snooty.
Stage Directions for All Players
As you rehearse your interviewing presentation, aim for the A-list of candidates by heeding the following hints:
- Practice focusing your discussion on the employer’s needs. Show that you understand those needs, that you possess the specific skills to handle the job, and that you are in sync with the company culture.
- Don’t discuss previous employment rejections — you come off as a constant audition reject.
- Develop and practice justifiably proud statements of your accomplishments — that is, those that directly relate to the job you want.
- Practice descriptions of your leadership qualities and initiative, and remember to express them in context of what you accomplished. (Did you lead 10 people, 100 people, or 1,000 people? What was the result? Has anyone in the company accomplished the same thing?)
- It’s okay to admit a misstep. If pressed, you can fess up to a goof you’ve made in your career (when was it — 3:48 p.m. on June 14, 2012?). But rehearse satisfying explanations of how you learned from your one mistake — or two or three. And try not to laugh while you’re admitting that you’re human.
- Don’t practice long monologues — be fair: Split air time with your interviewer.
Anticipating Interview Trapdoors
No matter how well you’re doing as you sail through an interview, certain things can throw you off balance when you’re not forewarned. Rehearse in your mind how you would handle the situations in the upcoming sections.
As you rehearse, keep in mind that not everything that happens during the interview is related to you. Your meeting may be interrupted by a ringing phone, the interviewer’s coworkers, or even the interviewer’s emergency needs. Add the factor of interview interference to your mock drills.
Because the show must go on, find language to politely overlook these interruptions with patient concentration. Practice keeping a tab on what you’re discussing between disruptions, in case the interviewer doesn’t.
Interviewers sometimes use silence strategically. Moments of silence are intended to get candidates to answer questions more fully — and even to get them to blurt out harmful information they had no intention of revealing.
Instead of concentrating on your discomfort during these silences, recognize the technique. Either wait out the silence until the interviewer speaks or fill it with a well-chosen question that you have tucked up your sleeve. Don’t bite on the silent treatment ploy, panic, and spill information that doesn’t advance your cause. Don’t run your mouth for no reason.
Turning the tables, you can use your own silence strategy to encourage the interviewer to elaborate or to show that you’re carefully considering issues under discussion.
Take One . . . Take Two . . . Take Three . . .
Practice your scenes until they feel right, until they feel spontaneous. Rehearsing gives you the power to become a confident communicator with the gift of presence. No more nervousness, no more zoning out. No more undercutting body language. Your butterflies fly in formation.