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It was an exciting moment for Sam. Two months spent job hunting, the longtime program designer landed his first job interview since being laid off thanks to COVID-related cuts. He thought he was a shoo-in for the position—until he joined the Zoom call and flubbed just about everything you can on a video call.
As hiring slowly rebounds in some sectors, job seekers are starting to realize what researchers have known all along—that trying to communicate online comes with a host of challenges. And given the extremely tough job market, this puts even more pressure on candidates to exceed their A game during virtual interviews.
Indeed, science says that job seekers looking to impress hiring managers will have a harder time doing so in a video call. That’s because those cues that build rapport, like eye contact and body language, become lost over webcam. “It’s very hard to make a personal connection,” says Rick Sklarin, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Technology and Professional Services practices. This means job seekers will “need to suit up mentally and interpersonally,” Sklarin says, as if they were interviewing in person. He and other experts suggest several tips.
Be quick. The late, great Louis Armstrong once sang “we have all the time in the world,” but research says that’s not exactly true—at least, not when it comes to virtual calls. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, although workers attend more meetings today than pre-COVID, those meetings are actually shorter in the post-lockdown era, by about 20% on average. For candidates, this means getting to the point even quicker than before. One way to be succinct, expert say: through anecdotes. “Think of stories that illustrate your knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience, because often times, stories keep things pretty concise,” says Jennifer Zamora, a career coach at KF Advance. Write these stories down, she says, making sure to highlight key actions, metrics, and results. Practice them until they easy to recall. And come interview time, experts say, give the summary first, then ask the interviewer how much detail they want afterwards.
Forget eye contact—or much of it. Making eye contact through webcam isn’t impossible, but according to research, it sure isn’t easy. In fact, a recent Florida Atlantic University study found that how people deploy attention during video calls changes significantly depending on the interaction (people spend nearly two times longer focused on a speaker’s eyes than their mouth if they think they’re engaging in a live video exchange, but if they think they’re not being watched, they’ll shift their gaze away, according to the study). Because eye contact over video is so specious, experts say to rely on smart-looking hand movements “to build more engagement and rapport with listeners,” says Ryan Frechette, career coach at KF Advance. For explaining an idea, use the “critical whirl,” where the hand circles counterclockwise in a small, rapid motion towards the interviewer. Nixing a concept? Employ the ”shelf sweep,” a two-handed gesture that involves pushing away and sweeping aside the contents of an imaginary bookcase.
Mind your manners. Research shows we tend to drift off, swivel in chairs, and focus more on ourselves when in virtual meetings compared to in-person conversations. (Indeed, a study of 136 participants found that people interacting virtually rated their partners, on average, a 2.48 on a 5-point scale for self-centeredness, while face-to-face partners were only rated 2.11, on average.) “If you’re unfamiliar with how you deliver yourself virtually, record yourself and practice to really see what you uniquely do,” says Marquitta Cherry, a career coach at KF Advance. Don’t only listen for every “like” and “um” thrown into a sentence, but also check for facial expressions, posture, and body movements that might hinder an interview. Then, Cherry says, place sticky notes or other indicators around the computer screen as reminders “to help change your behaviors.”
Name it and move on. It goes without saying that candidates should minimize distractions as much as possible during a video interview. This means finding a quiet space and clearing surroundings of clutter. But in the COVID era, unexpected disruptions are not only frequent, they’re, well, expected. Candidates, experts say, shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. If they know a disruption could happen during an interview (like, let’s say, noise from a jack hammer due to construction next door), then “name it in the beginning and ask for grace,” Cherry says. Let the interviewer know distractions are a possibility, but it won’t hinder the conversation. As for those sudden interruptions, experts say to be gracious, apologize for the inconvenience, and move on with the interview.
The fundamentals still apply. Even though the interview mode has changed, that doesn’t mean best practices should be discarded. Rather, experts say candidates should always treat a virtual interview as if it were happening face-to-face. “Act with the executive presence that you would in the CEO’s office,” Sklarin says. Sign on a few minutes early, dress the part from head to toe, refrain from multitasking, and, perhaps most important of all, check the tech. This means making sure all equipment is in working order, the internet connection is solid, the video quality is stellar, and the lighting in the room doesn’t cast a glare. “Don’t let your guard down,” Sklarin says. “Show up and be ready.”