3 ways to put your best foot forward on a video job interview

April 10, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC

With so many people working at a distance from coworkers, conversations and meetings via Zoom or Skype are getting so familiar that a certain casualness has crept in. About 50% of us, for example, have had a family member or a pet wander in during a work-related video chat, according to a survey by HR software firm O.C. Tanner. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it seems that a glimpse of each other’s personal lives can help people stay connected and productive in these harrowing times.

One big exception: Video job interviews, where professionalism and attention to detail are table stakes. “People are getting very sloppy,” observes Paul Bailo, PhD, a digital strategy expert who teaches management and innovation at Columbia University and wrote a new book called The Essential Digital Interview Handbook.

His data shows that “about 85% of a successful video interview comes down to how you look, and how you set up your surroundings,” he says. “These days, lots of people just aren’t bothering to put their best foot forward.” In his research, Bailo encountered one interviewee who wore a boa constrictor around his neck. Another sat with “an open closet with a big mess of clothes and shoes spilling out of it in the background,” Bailo recalls.

Admittedly, those are extreme examples. Even so, recruiters report that, with everyone now so much more relaxed on camera than before, most video interviewers are seeing a sharp increase in missteps. Before the coronavirus crisis, “about one in five video interviews we conducted had some element that was annoying or distracting,” says Marc Gasperino, managing director of the digital practice at headhunters ON Partners. “Now it’s much, much worse.”

Since “any little thing that’s irritating could cost you the job,” he adds, “it’s essential to take the time to shift gears from working from home to interviewing from home.”

So how do you do that? Here are 3 technical tips from Bailo:

1. Straighten up your workspace

Eliminate as much clutter as possible—especially anything that might draw an interviewer’s eye. “Don’t sit in front of a bookshelf full of books,” says Bailo. “People think it makes them look smart, but it’s distracting. Interviewers will be looking over your shoulder trying to read the titles.”

You might even try blocking the background completely by unrolling a sheet of plain or marbled seamless paper—the kind photographers often use for studio portraits—behind you. It’s readily available online from art-supply stores and, Bailo says, “it’s definitely worth 20 bucks or so to show the interviewer your attention to detail.”

2. Lights, camera, action

“You don’t want overhead lighting, because it casts too many shadows,” says Bailo. “It also darkens your eye sockets and emphasizes the area under your eyes, so you look twenty years older.” Yikes. Instead, he says, set up “soft lighting all around you, coming from your left and right.” Avoid backlighting, as it can make you hard to see onscreen. If you must sit in front of a window, close the curtains.

3. Consider investing in a better microphone.

Most laptops and desktops come with pretty good mikes built in, Bailo notes. But to make sure that your every word is clear and sharp when it matters, he recommends installing a brand called a Blue Snowball. These come in a variety of models and price ranges, so be sure you get one that’s optimized for your computer and has a setting specifically for video interviews.

Once you’ve set up the background, lighting, and sound quality you want, don’t forget to record yourself on Zoom or Skype to check out how you’ll come across. Take your time and tweak anything that could puzzle or distract an interviewer.

A further thought from Marc Gasperino: In a video interview, even more than in person, keep your answers brief and to the point, unless your interlocutor specifically requests more detail. “It’s harder to build a personal connection onscreen than face-to-face,” he says. “So you can easily miss those subtle nonverbal cues that someone is bored or wants to move on to the next question.

“The Number One reason people don’t get hired,” he adds, “is that they bombard the interviewer with too much information that no one asked for.” A much better approach: “Give a general overview of your career so far, and of particular accomplishments, but pause often to ask whether or not the interviewer would like more detail.” If not, stop talking.

Gasperino’s rule of thumb for how to tell whether you’re rambling: “If you think that you might be speaking too much, you are.” Got it.

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—3 ways to manage conflict when you work remotely
—Companies are getting more comfortable hiring fully remote employees
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
How freelancers can pivot to make it through the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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