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Ready For Your Close-up?

Advice for acing your Skype interview.

October 18, 2016

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




Job interviews are the worst. Interviews could be opportunities to dazzle our betters with impressive accomplishments and impeccably pressed clothes. Instead, they frequently exaggerate our worst anxious tendencies, causing us to be struck mute when we should be identifying our strengths and weaknesses and soaking our palms with perspiration when we try to seal the deal with a handshake.


The phone interview, as fellow GradHacker Katie points out, relieves some of this pressure: the interviewer doesn’t have to see you squirm when you’re answering questions from the safety of your own living room. But the phone interview also lacks a degree of human connection present in the in-person interview. Visual contact is valuable to an interviewer, which is why phrases like ‘interview suit’ and ‘interview-appropriate beauty’ exist. As a compromise between the cost of on-site interviews and the impersonality of phone interviews, Skype interviews have become standard protocol for the hiring process. This is a convenient option for interviewers, but for interviewees it means the challenge of combatting bad hair days and the cringe-inducing sound of our own voices, all while trying to project ourselves as calm, competent candidates. Hopefully these technical tips for a great Skype interview, pulled together from my experience as a real-life multimedia teacher and, of course, my own video-chatting blunders, can let you relax and instead focus on coming up with an answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?”


Step 1: Lights (and more)! Think of a gorgeous scene from your favorite movie. Every detail of that scene was micromanaged as much as possible in order to produce the desired result. Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t shot in a shared office, crowded quad, or noisy coffee shop. Why should your Skype interview be different? Choose a space that’s well-lit, quiet, and not subject to wild temperature fluctuations or sudden uninvited entrances. If you don’t have a space like that handy, I would suggest reserving a room at your local public library or asking a sympathetic professor to borrow their office. Your car might seem like an inviting option, but keep in mind it’s difficult to find a level surface to set a camera in the interior of most cars and it will be painfully obvious to the interviewer that you are sitting in a car.


Before the interview, envision how you will set up in your space. Where will you be? Where will the camera be? Where does the light come in? What will be behind you? Don’t be backlit unless you want to give the impression that you are a powerful wizard and don’t be spotlit unless the job you’re interviewing for involves being worked over by a hardboiled detective. Ambient lighting (natural, if possible) from one side will be plenty. Unless you have something behind you that helps illustrate your candidacy for the job, choose a neutral, non-distracting background. There’s nothing worse than seeing a puzzled interviewer trying to figure out if they recognize the painting behind you while you’re trying to explain what kind of animal you would be if you could be any kind of animal.


Step 2: Camera (or phone, or computer, or…)! Although your interview will be a live broadcast, there’s no reason you shouldn’t rehearse ahead of time to test different camera angles and deal with technical snags. Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and other video-chatting platforms function across a variety of devices. Your choice of device will be guided by what you have available, but I’d recommend choosing 1) the highest quality microphone available and 2) something that will stand up level. Test your devices’ microphones with a test call prior to the interview; which sounds the most natural? Which limits extraneous noise? Phones and computers tend to pick up a lot of extra sound when placed on a hard surface like a desk, so experiment with putting a blanket underneath to see if that improves your audio.


Next, make sure you have a level surface from which to frame your shot. If you are using a handheld device like a phone or tablet, invest in a stand. Trying to hold your device at arm’s length for the entire interview is a great way to get a wobbly, distracting shot prominently featuring your arm or, even worse, a slowly sinking shot which, to the interviewer, will look like you ate the wrong mushroom in Wonderland.


Finally, check the angle and distance between the camera and you. You can choose to look directly into the camera or you can utilize the rule of thirds and set yourself toward one side of the frame so that you’re talking across the camera. While the rule of thirds governs many portrait shoots and television interviews, I would only consider it for a video-chat job interview where the background to your shot is important to the interview or the interview is a conversation with an interview panel rather than a one-to-one meeting with a single interviewer. Assuming you’re looking into the camera, get close enough so that the width of your shoulders just about fills the frame and the top of your head has a little breathing room from the top of the frame. Too far away and you’ll have all the charm of a Tora Bora cave; too close and you’ll have a hard time staying in the shot. Make sure the camera is roughly at eye level so you’re not looking up or down at the interviewers. In my experience, the body cavity search only happens after you get hired, so there’s no need to give the interviewers a look up your nostrils at this stage.


Step 3: Action (but not too much)! Now that you’ve rigged the set and framed a perfect shot, it’s just a matter of making sure you’re coming across on camera. Dress professionally, as you would for any job interview, but make an effort to pick colors that contrast with your skin tone and with the background of your shot. This will give you more definition and more closely approximate a physical presence on the interviewers’ screens. Hair and makeup rules are the same you would apply to an in-person interview, with one caveat: avoid looking too shiny. If you’ve been blessed with naturally radiant skin or hair, too much reflection can be exaggerated on camera and be a distraction to your video-chat viewers. Normally a dab of moisturizer or hair putty (you too, men) can address unwanted reflection. You don’t need to fret about getting ready for the red carpet, but you don’t want your interviewers to focus on anything except all the ideas you have to improve their organization.


For the same reason, try to limit your movements while speaking and especially while your interviewer is speaking. There’s no need to be a statue, but remember that movements that might seem natural during a live conversation appear different to someone who can’t see beyond the four sides of the camera frame. To keep myself from leaning back too far or gesturing too animatedly, I leave a sticky note reminder on the desk, outside of the camera frame.


Last, remember to dress your bottom half to match the top. It might be tempting, especially if you’re in a warm climate, or especially if you’re me, to combine a blazer and basketball shorts on the basis that the interviewer will only see your top half. Unfortunately, it only takes one stretch out of frame to grab a copy of your CV, one sudden lunge to silence your phone, or one lean back to feign laughter at the interviewer’s joke to shatter that illusion.


Are your Skype interviews blockbuster smash hits or box office flops? Share your tips and tricks - or your blooper reel - in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Duane Bryce and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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