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How to be cool at an interview

In spite of the increasing use of scientific selection methods in recruiting, there is, as the recruiter John Counts points out in his book Interview (Institute of Personnel Management 5.50), a "vast band of people who make interview decisions on 'gut feel'; often within minutes of starting the meeting".

Gut feel is hard to define but reaction to physical appearance is certainly part of it. Shakespeare was wise to this: "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous."

Image counselling is emerging as an element in career counselling. All counselling firms use videod dummy interviews to teach job applicants to see themselves as others see them. The object is to show them the impression they create by their body language and their tone of voice.

Liz Lothian, a colour and image consultant with KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock's career counselling division, believes they should also be looking over their wardrobe. "It'snot enough just to turn up at interviews with a well-pressed suit and polished shoes. You should also check that the suit is still a good fit. If it's got too tight for you, it will make you look fatter than you are."

She says double-breasted suits are a mistake unless you are slim. They exaggerate middle-age spread by giving their wearers what she describes as a "squareand boxy appearance". For women with a tendency towards plumpness, she advocates dark clothes. Light ones emphasise unwanted bulges.

On the other hand, there are perils in appearing too well dressed. "It's a matter of what is appropriate. A 600 tailored suit might well be what is expected of a candidate applying for a job with a six-figure salary but it would probably create the wrong impression in the case of an applicant for a middle-management Job," she says. The interviewer might, for example, start thinking about the applicant's probable expense account.

Lesley Dingle, a Bristol-based image consultant used by the counselling firm, Cepec, says appropriateness is a matter of job function, not industry sector. "The person that looks the part gets the role" is how she puts it.

Liz Lothian believes that applicants should give thought to the person who is likely to be conducting the interview. Interviewers, she believes, favour applicants who dress as they do themselves. Such applicants send the right signals about being likely to conform to the corporate culture.

But there are pitfalls in applying the principle rigidly across national boundaries. French executives, for instance, often wear sports jackets or blazers to work. But she says they would expect a British applicant to wear a suit.

Another hazard lies in the choice of ties. More than any other item, says Cepec, they convey a personal message. Club and school ties show where you belong. They may produce a favourable reaction; or they may well give the feeling that you are trying to impress the interviewer with whom you know rather than what you know.

"Ifin doubt, keep your interview wardrobe as neutral as possible'" Lothian advises, although she is not in favour of the plain white shirt. "White shirts tend to show up skin blemishes and to heighten dark shadows on the face. If you're not feeling 100%, a while shirt can underline the fact."

Shirts need to be a good fit. "It's very important to feel comfortable because, in an interview, you have to sit still for long periods," she says. Fidgeting and other signs of unease create a poor impression. Few gestures are a greater giveaway than tugging at a tight collar when asked an awkward question.

In fact, almost any movement is distracting. If there are any items you might need to get your hands on during the interview, it is best to have them where you can get at them without fumbling.

Spectacles need thought. People who habitually wear glasses are more at ease with their management than those who wear them only occasionally. Battered spectacle cases, old-fashioned frames and smeary lenses create an impression of sloppiness. Habitual wearers of glasses should avoid wearing them round the neck on a string. To many interviewers, that gives an impression of absentmindedness.

So does forgetting names - all too easy in the case of an interview panel. Sitting next to a fairly senior external consultant at a meeting recently, I observed how she surreptitiously drew, on the back of an envelope, a diagram of where people were sitting and what their names were.

It is more difficult to be prepared for interviewer prejudices but Lothian says they fall into predictable patterns:

* Beards are acceptable for creative and R & D jobs, but elsewhere there is a widespread feeling that a man wearing a beard is in some way hiding behind it. On the other hand, says Lothian, if you feel comfortable only if wearing a beard, you should not shave it off for a job interview. A feeling of unease is readily transmitted to an interviewer.

* For women, two pieces of good jewellery are enough. More can be distracting. Male jewellery should be confined to a wedding ring.

* Smoking has always been something to avoid in an interview - even if the interviewer smokes. Nowadays there is a feeling against smoking in general. "A lot of employees are against it," says one employer. "My own view is that someone who is still smoking after all the health warnings against it is a neurotic." He immediately terminates an interview if he finds the candidate is a smoker.

* Designer labels and monograms are not popular with many interviewers. They signal that the candidate is dependent on someone else's judgment to gain approval.

* There is widespread prejudice against men who wear white socks, or shoes of any colour other than black or brown. Michelle Hopkirk of Drake Beam Morin dealt with one otherwise highly qualified candidate, a scientist, who had to be deterred from wearing what looked like climbing boots to interviews.

However, some interviewers' prejudices match the eccentricities of candidates. Derek Edwards of the career counsellor Sanders & Sidney tells of one employer who looked at candidate's wrists. He never accepted anyone with one brown wrist and one white one. "Fellow obviously plays too much golf", was his verdict.

* Godfrey Golzen is co-author of "Changing Your Job After 35" (Kogan Page), available by post ( 8. 95 inc. p & p) from Riverside Books, 47
Deodar Road, London, SW15 2NU.

Updated February 14, 2005
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