Interviews: impressions count – A contractor's view

The decisions we make about liking or disliking somebody are made phenomenally quickly. In as little as 1/20th of a second according to some research. It's all to do with the evolution of the limbic system in the brain which, not wanting to waste too much time juggling data about the saber tooth tiger that's just strolled through the cave door, leaps to intuitive conclusions; after all, on a risk-reward basis, it's better to miss the opportunity for a discussion with the world's first talking feline than it is to end up as its dinner.

Research varies on the matter. Associate professor of marketing at US University Stetson, Randall Hansen, believes 20 seconds is enough to make a good first impression with prospective employers and reportedly said to MSN's Encarta, "The hiring manager is often sitting there thinking, 'This person would be perfect,' and even if the job seeker slips a little on some of the answers to actual questions, the 'halo effect' says the good first impression will make the impact of those slips minimal (as compared to someone who did not make a great first impression)."

This first impression is made up of clothing, smiling, and offering a firm, dry handshake. Other research suggests that four minutes is the critical timeline, and that impressions are formed from the following:

  • 55% visual impact
  • 38% tone of voice
  • 7% your words

But it is generally agreed, that once the first impression has been made, any other information either confirms the interviewer's snap decision, or is simply ignored. It takes a great deal of work for an interviewee to change the first impression and therefore the importance of the opening five minutes cannot be overstated.

Visual impression

Since some half of a first impression is made up of the visual impact it's well worth discussing what you should wear to an interview.

A suit!

Wrong. Well, almost wrong.

You can, it seems, dress too smartly, and I have often wondered myself the impression I am making by turning up in a £300 suit when the team leader taking the interview is wearing a blue short sleeve shirt complete with leaking pens in the breast pocket. Will the team leader like working with a high-powered know it all?

" I have been turned down at interview just because my suit was too sharp. For technical interviews, I think you can dress too much like a consultant and give the wrong impression. At other times, smart dressing is essential. It's not always easy to determine which situation is which," says Robert Wallace.

Less Berridge, of the REC, makes the point that many companies have dress down days and a casual dress code, and you should ask your agent what is expected.

Some contractors, and I have one particular friend in mind but he will have to remain nameless, have made a career move out of wearing a pony tail, goatee beard and black trainers. It's almost a technologist's uniform such is the cliché, but they seem to get the jobs.

For my own part I did indeed grow a goatee and sport long hair during a particularly bad period in my contracting career. I attended four interviews in that state – still wearing a reasonable suit and decent shoes I might add – but failed to be offered a contract.

The moment I shaved and cut my hair I received a job offer, and I do not think it was luck. It was down to the first impression. Maybe, unlike my bearded friends, I simply do not carry the beard and long hair well. For them it makes them seem more technical and able, while for me it is a false mask that kids nobody. I am not that technician, I am a different sort.

So my advice for interview dressing is sublimely boring: check out what is expected for the role and then dress within that range so you feel comfortable. If you feel comfortable your confidence will shine through.

Body language

But visual presentation is not just about your haircut and clothing. The way you hold yourself speaks volumes of your confidence and experience. Much of the impact you create at interview sparks from your body language.

  • Sitting and speaking

Slouching or leaning too far back in your chair can give a casual impression. Try not to let your hands flit about in front of you but do not cross them – that will appear defensive. Moderate hand movements can enliven the conversation and illustrate enthusiasm.

  • It's in the eyes

Good eye contact shows your interest in the job and the interviewer. Looking downwards or away from the interviewer can make you appear disinterested and insincere while good eye contact also helps you gauge the interviewer's reaction. Faced with a panel, look at the person asking the questions, with a glance from time to time at the other interviewers.

  • Fear is in your voice

Try not to talk too fast or hesitate unduly. Rehearsal greatly helps bring clarity and confidence to your answers, while highlighting any weaknesses. Try not to "umm" and "err" and don't use slang unless its part of the accepted norm for the position.

  • Relaxation

Smile and establish a rapport with your interviewer. Don't be afraid to joke – appropriately – and be friendly. If you are relaxed the other things will naturally follow.

William Knight

Monday 23rd Feb 2009
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