Your nonverbal cues during an interview are just as important as your stellar resume. Make sure you're sending the right ones!

When writing a resume, we obsess over the details. Am I using the appropriate words, placing commas in the correct places, and ensuring that my written communication reads well? Will someone really notice that the margins are slightly different? Maybe or maybe not - but we know it and we want to get every detail right. After all, a successful resume is written with the reader in mind.

Even if the resume is “perfect,” however, all of this work can immediately go to waste if the interviewee does not have excellent nonverbal communication skills. An interviewer will make judgments about the job seeker within the first seconds of meeting them. Much of it will be based on their appearance and how they act. 

These little elements are nonverbal communication and they're happening whether you're aware of them or not. So, how can we take more control and improve our nonverbal communication skills? The first step is understanding what nonverbal communication is.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is the act of conveying information without the use of words. This happens through facial expressions, gestures, body language, tone of voice, and other physical indications of mood and attitude. It encompasses a whole host of cues that display emotional states and complement verbal messages. These are both conscious and subconscious expressions. A handshake, head nod, and leaning forward are conscious actions intending to communicate something deliberately. Movements like a nervous twitch, a quiver in the voice, or toe-tapping, however, all subconsciously expose emotional states that you might not want to share. 

Why is it important to understand nonverbal communication?

Understanding the different types of nonverbal communication will help you to both control the messages you're sending and decode the emotions and attitudes of others. Understanding nonverbal cues can make you a more effective communicator in many ways. For example, non-verbal communication can be used:

  • To demonstrate interest. Nonverbal signals communicate attentiveness and engagement. Controlling your posture and eye contact will show others that you're interested in what they have to say.

  • To express specific meaning. Many words can have multiple different meanings and interpretations. What we say can often be misheard or misinterpreted. Learning how to clarify your words with nonverbal communication can prevent miscommunication.

  • To establish a connection. Nonverbal communication can establish connection and trust. Physical gestures like a handshake or a hug are necessary for certain personal interactions and taboo in others.

  • To show authenticity. Nonverbal communication lays the foundation for the authenticity of your feelings with those to whom you are speaking. Complement your speech with direct eye contact and confident body language to demonstrate that you're expressing your true feelings.

What are some examples of nonverbal communication?

You might be thinking that non-verbal communication is basically just body language. Are you slouching or crossing your arms? Body language is, of course, a huge part of nonverbal communication. But it actually goes much further. We're constantly giving non-verbal cues with gestures, giving too much or too little personal space, what we're wearing, and where we're focusing our eye line. 

  • Body language. In simple terms, body language is the process of communicating nonverbally through conscious or unconscious gestures and movements. Crossing your arms, hands in pockets, shifting your legs, leaning back, hanging your hand, and twisting the body away from the conversation are all impactful forms of body language. Body language communicates whether someone is engaged or distracted, empowered or nervous, comfortable or uneasy. 
  • Posture. Posture is the way that you sit or stand and how you position your body to the people around you. It presents your comfort level and disposition towards a person, place, or conversation. Those around you will - both consciously and subconsciously - interpret your professionalism, tension level, and engagement from your posture.
  • Gestures. Deliberate hand gestures and head movements, like giving a thumbs-up or a head shake, waving, and pointing are all great examples of gestures (kinesics). But it also includes standing or sitting at particular moments, saluting, adjusting clothing or hair, and stretching. Since these are conscious body movements, this is one of the most easily controllable of the nonverbal forms of communication. 
  • Proximity. Proximity is the amount of physical distance between people, also known as personal space. Human beings take personal space very seriously. They also interpret personal space differently, depending on social and cultural norms and relationships. For instance, Americans might like a lot more personal space between them and a stranger than Europeans would. Standing right in front of someone else could be either confrontational or intimate, depending on the relationship.

  • Vocal qualities. Tone of voice, pitch, or loudness of speech are nonverbal cues. This might be a bit confusing, because it has to do with speech. However, so-called paralinguistic signals refer to any aspect of the sound of a voice outside a direct verbal translation of words being spoken. They're the qualities of verbal communication that aren't the words themselves. Altering your voice changes the meaning of a sentence. Just consider all the ways you've heard someone say “I'm fine.” You've probably heard it said defensively, happily, or even angrily.

  • Facial expressions. The look on someone's face is usually the first thing we see. Facial expressions are one of the clearest indicators of a person's true demeanor. A frown or a smile can be hard to willingly control and can belie how someone is really feeling. Happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are universal emotions. 

  • Eye contact. Eye contact is one of the main ways we express interest or disinterest. Wandering eyes can communicate unease or even dishonesty. Fixed eye contact, however, usually shows that someone is comfortable and telling the truth. Eyes also convey emotions. When we're afraid, our pupils dilate. When we're excited, we blink rapidly. 

  • Touch. Many interactions begin with some kind of physical touch: a hug, a handshake, or a tap on the arm or shoulder. Touch is powerful because it almost always elicits an emotion. Touch can be used to express affection, familiarity, sympathy, and other emotions. Of course, how we respond to touch is often determined by social norms, relationships, and gender. Some use touch to show care and concern, while others use touch to assert some level of status. 

  • Appearance. How you look is clearly something people notice immediately. A hairstyle, clothes, and tattoos, all elicit impulsive judgments from others. Your appearance is a form of nonverbal communication. “Dress to impress,” “dress for the job you want,” and “clothes maketh the man” are common sayings for a reason. A person's appearance can factor into our physiological reactions toward, and interpretations of, others. Consider carefully how you dress for interviews and at work.

How can you improve your nonverbal communication skills?

Nonverbal communication happens whether we want it to or not. Often, these signals occur rapidly. Noticing all of them can be challenging during a conversation. Nonverbal signals are also far more subtle than spoken words, but they're no less important. These cues convey the meaning behind what someone is saying, what they're truly feeling, or if they're even actually listening. 

Having more control over the nonverbal cues we're sending ourselves can help us to control how we come across to others. Not all nonverbal communication can be controlled, but some cues can absolutely be optimized. The first step, however, in improving your nonverbal communication is being aware of what those factors are and what cues you're giving. After that, it's a matter of making conscious decisions to adjust those cues for better results.

Let's take a look at a few ways to improve your nonverbal communication.

10 easy ways to improve your nonverbal communication skills

1. Shake hands firmly

No one wants a “dead-fish” handshake. Show them you are confident with a nice, firm handshake. Firm, however, doesn't mean a “knuckle-cracker.” Your aim is to appear confident and present, not to intimidate or injure the other person. Also, a handshake is supposed to take place in that neutral space between two people. Don't “pull” the other person toward you or yank them in a direction with your handshake. More people subconsciously do these little aggressive moves than you might think - and the impression is one the other person won't soon forget.

2. Make eye contact

This doesn't mean staring, but it does mean you're not looking at the ceiling or at the floor for the duration of the meeting. Look people in the eye and show them you are ready to talk business. And, if there's more than one person conducting the interview, be sure to look at each person.

3. Sit up straight in your chair

Your mom was right. Slouching gives the impression that you don't care about the person talking to you and it looks sloppy. Sitting up straight will also help you to listen more intently. Make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor and the small of your back is against the chair.

4. Appreciate the power of your appearance

This doesn't mean that you have to purchase a brand-new three-piece suit. It does mean you should dress in a nice outfit, ensure it isn't wrinkly, and take your time getting ready.

5. Pay attention

When the interviewer is speaking to you, nod your head at the appropriate times and take notes if you think you may forget something important. These communication cues show that you are interested in what he or she is saying.

6. Be friendly

This includes smiling when you meet people that work at the business. From greeting the receptionist upon your arrival to shaking hands with the interviewer when you leave, your communication skills matter throughout the entire process.

Before going to that interview, practice with someone and have them tell you the nonverbal signals you're sending. Or, if you're able to do so, videotape yourself and watch the recording. Emphasize what's going well and modify the behaviors and nonverbal communication cues that distract from your professionalism. You may be surprised at things you are doing and don't even know it. Taking the time to address it now will ensure that you're giving the appropriate, professional, and proper nonverbal communication signals. 

7. Don't fidget 

Be aware of your body language even when sitting. This goes beyond posture. Nervously tapping your foot, repositioning yourself multiple times, crossing and uncrossing your legs repeatedly, or playing with your hair, are all nervous ticks that not only tell the recruiter that you are uncomfortable, they subconsciously make the recruiter uncomfortable as well. Find a relaxed but confident position in the chair and stick to it. If you don't know what to do with your hands, place them in your lap or just fold them together.

8. Don't stand so close (or too far away)

Be aware of the space between you and others. Are you invading their personal space? Are you so far away that you seem afraid to engage? Two to three feet (double arm's length) is a great amount of space for a personal conversation.

9. Don't mumble

Speak up and speak clearly. Most people will quickly tune you out if you don't speak with directness and sincerity and at a volume they can understand. At the same time, don't shout or spit your words. You're in an office, not at a concert.

10. Relax 

Relax your shoulders and your face. Your facial expressions will speak much louder than your words. If you're trying to tell a recruiter that you're confident in your work, but your face is sending all of the signals of fear and surprise, they'll listen to your face. Before a stressful conversation, try relaxing the muscles in your face by contracting and then relaxing them. It's an old acting exercise called scrunch and release. Scrunch up your face, then release, and repeat. Then take a deep breath. Let your words do the talking, not your eyebrows.

The bottom line

Nonverbal communication undeniably plays a prominent role in our personal and professional life. Person-to-person interaction will almost always involve some kind of non-verbal communication.

Understanding its power, and learning how to harness it, can be extremely helpful in all walks of life. As a job seeker or employer, understanding nonverbal cues and learning how to improve them can do wonders for communicating precisely what you want to say. 

If you're hitting the job market and need help with your resume, make sure you're making the right first impression by sending it for a free resume review. If it's interview skills you're struggling with, our colleagues at TopInterview are ready to help. 

This article was originally written by Heather Rothbauer-Wanish and was updated in 2023 by Robert Lyons.

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