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The Ultimate Guide to Acing Video Interviews

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I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that most candidates (i.e. your competitors) are terrible at video interviews.

The bad news is that you’re likely in the same boat — but not for long.

Alex Andrei & Pamela Skillings bring you an in-depth guide for preparing for your next video interview.

The ability to shine in a video interview requires some skills and savvy beyond basic job interview best practices.

And now that more and more companies are using video interviews at some stage in the hiring process (60% or more, depending on which survey you read), you can certainly count on a video interview in your near future.

In this guide, we’ll explain how to properly prepare and stage every facet of the video interview to give you the best chance possible.

What’s the Big Deal About Video Interviews?

Some people feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of interviewing via video (including many of you who grew up with Skype and YouTube) and others dread the very idea (camera-shy folks, I’m talking to you).

This guide will help you if you’re too comfortable (and can come across as overly casual or unprofessional) or totally webcam-phobic (and can come across as stiff, nervous, or awkward).

We all know how important visuals are to forming a first impression (see – Inference of Attitudes from Non-Verbal Communication, Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol. 31 1967).

After all, attractive people reportedly get more job interviews and earn more money (shocker). However, even attractive and well-dressed candidates can mess up their video interviews if they’re not careful.

Luckily, a little bit of knowledge about the equipment and the process can go a long way. In fact, we’ll show you how to dramatically improve your video presentation with some basic attention to your webcam set-up.

Obviously, you’ll still need to be qualified for the job and answer the questions well (as always, Big Interview has you covered with that part of your prep).

However, these video interviewing tips and tricks will remove a controllable element from the decision-making process — preventing an interviewer from unconsciously discounting you based on how you appear on camera.

And honestly, don’t worry if you don’t like how you currently look on camera.

(If a little make-up and lighting can make the average politician look human, I’m sure you’ll be fine.)

Why are Video Interviews Used?

Companies see many benefits in using video technology to vet candidates. With a video interview, you have most of the benefits of seeing a candidate in person, but without the hassle/expense of actually meeting them (especially if someone would have to fly or drive to a different city).

It’s quick, it’s neat, and depending on the the technology used, allows the company some element of standardization of the interview process and candidate selection.

Staffing firm Robert Half did a survey in 2012 showing that 6 in 10 employers were using video to conduct job interviews (and by now that number most definitely grown a lot more).

Long story short — you need to prep for a video interview just as seriously as would for an in-person one.

Types of Video Interviewing

1. Live Video/Skype Interviews

The live video interviews can take one of two forms.

The simplest approach is that the company could use something like a Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom, Blue Jeans, or any one of the million video-conferencing tools online.

These are pretty straightforward since, in most cases, the interviewer will either send you a link or call your user-id / screenname.

Just be careful to clean up your Skype account and privacy settings if you’re going to use it with potential employers (your college account with ID stoner-yolo1993 does not inspire confidence).

Alternatively, the company could use a system that does live interviews, but also acts as an internal candidate tracking/screening tool (something like like HireVue, SparkHire, TakeTheInterview, and dozens of other companies).

From the candidate’s perspective, a live video experience via one of these platforms is generally not much different from interviewing via Skype or Google Hangout. On the employer’s side, there are bells and whistles that allow them to share, track, rate responses, etc.

2. Pre-recorded/Asynchronous Video Questions

In these cases, you’re given a link to a page where you can record answers to pre-selected/pre-recorded interview questions. You’re usually given a set amount of time for each answer, and you may get 1 or 2 tries before submitting.

These questions could be part of the application process or be a screening step after your resume has allowed you to rise above the crowd. Tools used for these asynchronous video questions include AsyncInterview, Wepow, Sonru and others.

To get a sense of the experience, just try out the Big Interview Practice Interview tool.

Keys to an Amazing Video Interview

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Your Non-verbal / Body Language Considerations

1. Maintain good eye contact

We all know how important it is to make confident eye contact during an interview. This is much tougher to do via video.

When you’re speaking to someone via video conference, your eyes naturally want to focus on the face of your conversation partner. Depending on where that face is on your monitor and the location of your webcam, this can cause you to appear on-screen as if you are looking down or away.

You can avoid this by resizing and moving the window with the person’s video image. Move it up or as close to your webcam as possible. This will give the closest approximation to real human eye contact.

Now remember: there’s a fine line between good eye contact and the serial killer stare. Webcam eye contact can feel a bit awkward at first and a lot of people respond by over-compensating.

A good rule of thumb is that if someone can see the “whites” all around your pupil – then your stare is probably too intense.

Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact has this advice:

“The kind of eye contact you want to have when you go into a job interview is neither too aggressive nor too weak. It’s walking this perfect middle line that is called confidence.”

There are also some cultural considerations depending on where you are in the world (and where your interviewer is), but a good rule is to not sustain eye-contact for longer than 5 seconds at a time.

Break eye-contact, look away briefly, breathe, then reconnect.

For those of you who find sustained eye contact uncomfortable, it can be useful to focus on one eye at a time, taking a few beats with each.

Don’t dart your eyes around like some shifty 1940s cartoon villain. Find a nice, smooth, natural gaze.

2. Make sure to smile (but not too much)

Again, too much of a good thing can come across as creepy. Some confident, enthusiastic smiling is good – but it can easily cross the line into nervous or too-eager-to-please if overdone.

Try not to be too goofy or laugh at every joke. The smile is meant to be a tool to show that you’re a pleasant person to work with, you have reasonably good social awareness, and have a good dose of enthusiasm and confidence.

Here’s an example of a confident answer that incorporates a bit of smiling and good eye contact:

And here’s another example of a fairly confident smile – but we don’t recommend trying it:

3. Control fidgeting and other nervous energy

We all have some little nervous tics or twitches or distracting habits — it’s normal. But in an interview, we really have to make a concerted effort to be aware.

This is why we highly recommend recording yourself multiple times to see what you’re doing and to become aware of anything that need toning down.

Some gestures and behaviors that are fine in person can be distracting on video. It could be super-animated hand movements, twirling your hair, touching your face, or tapping your fingers or feet (at least they won’t be able to see your feet on video — so channel that energy and tap away).

Even more commonly, your nervous tic could be a verbal one — like saying “uh-huh” or “like” over and over again.

We’re talking about little habits that you may not even be aware of. As a result, watching yourself on camera could be an eye opener. And in this case, awareness plus practice equal results. You can break these nervous habits with a little preparation.

Final note: Keep your hand off your chin unless you want to look like a bad yearbook photo — and for god’s sake, don’t touch your nose.

4. Calm Your Nerves

Almost everyone feels some nerves when preparing for a job interview. And the number one reason for nerves is fear of the unknown — it’s because you’re not sure what to expect. That uncertainty is the biggest reason for stress.

Your head is spinning with questions like “Am I prepared enough?”, “Am I even qualified?”, “Will they like me?” These questions add up to anxiety because you can’t have any certainty about the answer.

It only gets worse when you’ve been on a few interviews that didn’t pan out (especially if you’ve run into an evil interviewer or two). Candidates rarely get any real feedback about why they weren’t chosen and some end up second-guessing every little moment.

This anxiety can turn into a vicious spiral and sabotage all of your hard work.

What’s important to know is that it’s normal to feel nervous. A job interview is a very weird animal, unlike any other professional conversation you might have. You can be perfectly well-spoken and confident in a typical business meeting, then feel your anxiety shoot off the charts when it’s time for a job interview.

Interviewing is a skill and, as with any other skill, you get better with practice. All the practice and prep you put in goes toward reducing nervousness, because when it really comes down to it – there are only so many areas they can ask you about. A typical interview could be 5-10 areas/topics/competencies. An extremely difficult interview could be 12-15.

The point is that’s it’s not an infinite number of questions or areas to probe – so it’s totally manageable. And once you have a handle on things – the stress goes down.

For additional info, take a look at our guide for reducing job interview anxiety.

5. Optimize Your Posture and Positioning.

It’s important to be aware that there are some differences in ideal posture between an in-person interview and a video interview.

On video, the interviewer will generally not be seeing your lower body or legs consideration (if they can, you’re way too far away from the camera).

This means you don’t have to worry too much about leg positioning. A nice neutral stance in your chair, with both feet on the ground, should be fine.

Crossing legs might be a bit too awkward with a webcam since it can mess with your on-camera framing (which we’ll touch on in more detail below).

You’ll clearly want to sit upright and keep your back straight. Make sure you’re facing the camera, and not showing too much of the side angle.

Adjust your chair to make sure you’re not too low or high in the frame.

Find a nice, comfortable balance between leaning forward and reclining too far back. What’s nice is that you can do a dry run and play with different options and adjust things accordingly.

Also, an amazing useful video is a TED Talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy talking about the importance and connection of posture and confidence. Great talk that merits a watch and also includes techniques for reducing your nerves through body language:

Your Technical Set-up for the Video Interview

1. Choosing Your Webcam

Your best choice here will be a function of your personal preference (and budget). However, I can share my rather extensive personal experience and recommendations.

I have many different webcams that I’ve used casually and professionally, so I can speak from a pretty informed perspective.

For me personally, given how important it is to look your best, I would invest the extra $30 – $50 over a cheaper webcam to get a better quality product (especially if you’ll have uses for it beyond the video interview).

There are a lot of things about the interview process you can’t control, but one thing you can control is how you look.

I also believe it’s better to go with an external webcam — whether you have a desktop or laptop, PC or Mac. This is a better bet because it allows for higher image quality and more positioning flexibility (which we’ll discuss below).

If you have a MacBook, you can probably get away with the built-in webcam. It’s nice enough (just not as sharp/crisp), you’ll just need to take steps to properly position your laptop in a slightly precarious position (again, more details on how to position in a minute).

There are many webcam brands out there, but the gold standard will be a nice, higher-end Logitech (C900 series will be fine).

Here’s the Logitech C920:
logitech webcam

And here’s the Logitech C930:
logitech webcam

There are other webcams from Microsoft, Creative and other brands you can check out. Read the reviews and consider your personal pros and cons.

Also, I don’t think using a tablet camera is a wise way to go (and most definitely not a phone camera).

Tablets (both iPads and Android tablets) have some downsides. First, a lot of video software is known to be more temperamental on a tablet so there’s a big risk of it not working right.

There’s also a risk of lost connection and/or bandwidth-reliability with wifi (and this doesn’t include lighting, webcam and mic considerations that we’ll go over a little later).

Phones have all the same problems as tablets only with a smaller screen with even less flexibility.

If you’ve gone to the trouble of landing a video interview, set yourself up for success.

2. Webcam Placement

The first thing to remember about placement is that people (even gorgeous models) tend to look horrible when a camera is shooting them from below. For the most flattering angle, you want to position your webcam to be above your eye-line, angled slightly downward.

There are a couple of ways to accomplish this:

First option – External Webcam

Place the webcam on a stack of books or a box behind your monitor. You’ll want the webcam to be a bit above your eye-line, almost in-line with the top of your head.

2014-webcam-set-up-combo

Second Option – Built-in Webcam

Similar to the advice above – place your laptop on something so that the webcam is above your eye-line, in-line with the top of your head.

3. Lighting for Your Webcam

Lighting is incredibly important – I can’t stress this enough. It can take you from looking like a troll to looking like a movie-star. Why do think Oprah has such powerful lights on her set? The heat from those things could melt lead. (Not comparing Oprah to a troll, but that lighting was truly magical).

The nice folks over at Wistia put together a useful set of tips and a video for webcam lighting, which I recommend watching:

The idea is that you don’t need an expensive lighting set-up. You just need two clamp lights, some cheap CFL daylight / full-spectrum bulbs, and a couple of light-stands (or something else to clip your lights to.)

Have the lights about 2.5 – 3.5 feet on either side of you at at least the same height as the webcam (or a little higher).

2014-11-13-webcam-lighting

The CFL full spectrum bulbs mimic sunlight, so they make you look better than regular bulbs.

You’re looking to achieve nice even lighting across your face — this will minimize shadows, remove wrinkles, and make you look fabulous. (If only it could be sold by the bottle.)

So your set-up might look something like this:

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Courtesy of Wistia

And I’ll include a full shopping-list at the end for easy reference.

If you’re on a very tight budget or very short on time, you can create an almost-as-good effect by positioning two lamps, one on either side of your desk with the light source ideally at the height of the webcam or a little bit higher (be sure to jerry-rig the webcam positioning we discussed above).

Again, this won’t give you the same Oprah-like effect as the set-up described above, but you’ll look much better than if you just settle for regular room lighting.

4. Webcam Software Options

Most external webcams come with some sort of software to adjust exposure, balance and color. Built-in cameras generally do not.

You can also buy and install software that enables additional camera customization options. I’ve heard good things about iGlasses.

Here’s the Mac version, and the Windows version.

Aim for nice, natural looking color. Don’t over-expose and over-saturate — it’s likely to look weird.

5. To Headset or Not to Headset

I personally like the headset, though you don’t necessarily need one. All webcams have built-in microphones now, but there are a couple of issues with them.

First, you can’t control the background and ambient noise that can creep in. Built-in mics (especially on the cheaper webcams) will pick up all the ambient sounds you want to keep out.

Second, your voice will sound tinny and not as rich and clear as it should. The tone of your voice is extremely important in persuasion, so it goes without saying that you should take whatever steps you can to sound as good as possible.

Here are a couple of good options:

Logitech ClearChat Comfort/USB Headset H390
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Sennheiser PC 151 Binaural Headset with Noise-Canceling Microphone & Volume Control
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Sennheiser PC 363D High Performance Surround Sound Gaming Headset
(this is what I use in the earlier pic above and I love it beyond words. It works amazingly well, but it might be a bit too big for your interview purposes.)
2014-11-13-363d

6. Background on Camera

Backgrounds are important too. A neutral background is your best bet.

What you’re trying to do is avoid anything blatantly distracting or embarrassing (that “Legalize It” poster on the wall behind you isn’t gonna help).

It’s also a good idea to avoid having a mirror reflection show up on camera. Murphy’s Law says something embarrassing will always move through the reflection when you least expect it (think cat, half-naked roommate or mom).

A plain wall, a screen, a bookshelf (with nothing odd on the shelves) is fine. If you’re really concerned about background or there are elements you can’t control, a cheap screen like this could work, or hang a solid color curtain.

A good rule to have at least 2 feet of distance from the background behind you – that way there’s less of an ugly shadow (the more distance, the more flattering).

7. Clothes & Make-up for the Video Interview

Clothes

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  1. Do not wear white (shirts, blouses or jackets). Because of how the webcam works and the lighting, white will be way too bright and distracting. A light blue shirt or blouse is a better option.
  2. Avoid wearing pure black on camera. The webcam will adapt to try and show the black and this can cause your face to wash out a bit due to overexposure.
  3. Super-bright colors (bright reds, yellows, pinks, etc) can also cause problems and give your skin a slight reddish, unnatural tint on camera.
  4. Do not wear pinstripes, houndstooth, herringbone, or anything that has a busy pattern.
  5. Many softer, solid colors will work great. A dark, deep blue is one of the best options.
  6. As a rule, if there’s a very high contrast between two colors, it won’t do well on camera.

2014-11-13-colbert

Face

      1. Women should wear at least some make-up on the nose and forehead to avoid shininess (a nice advantage of the webcam is that you can see how you look ahead of time and fix any shininess).
      2. For men, if you’re naturally shiny or sweat profusely, a little make-up will help too.
      3. Another thing you might consider (especially for the follicly-disabled), is something like FaceSaver antiperspirant. It works really well on the face and head and doesn’t leave any residue.
      4. If you wear glasses, they will ideally be glare-proof so there’s no reflection of the light. You want your interviewer to see your eyes and not a distracting glare. If you have contacts, it might be good idea to use them.

Here’s a useful guide for men applying make-up:

8. Internet / Bandwidth

A good connection is paramount. Personally, I would avoid using wifi (unless you’re just a couple feet away from the router).

Being connected physically to the router (by a network cable) is the safest way to go. For video-conferencing, you’ll ideally want a connection speed in the 10Mbps range (or better).

To test your connection speed, I find it useful to go to a site like Ookla Speedtest.

If you have at least 25Mbps, you might be able to get away with using wi-fi for your interview and have it look reasonably good. But if in doubt, I wouldn’t do an interview without being connected physically to the router.

Note: Do your best to avoid using a shared connection with roommates or family while on the interview. If your brother is streaming a movie or your friend is Skyping, it can absolutely mess with your video conferencing bandwidth.

And it should go without saying that you shouldn’t do a video interview from a public place. Beyond the problems with the setting and noise (I would never do a phone interview in public either), your internet will never be reliable.

You’ll either be on your personal mobile hotspot (which can be very iffy even in major cities) or you’ll be on a public wifi (have you ever tried to watch a YouTube video at Starbucks?)

Do yourself a favor and arrange to conduct your interview on an internet connection you can be 100% confident about. Plan ahead and you won’t need to scramble or cut corners.

9. Doing a Tech Run-Through

Because technology is unpredictable, it’s smart to do a complete run-through of all the tech stuff at least an hour ahead of your video interview.

Here’s a quick check-list:

      1. Clear your desk/interview-space of extraneous things and simply have your resume in front of you and a notepad for jotting things down.
      2. Check your lights.
      3. Check your webcam and make sure it works and that the software settings are optimized.
      4. Check that your mic is working and that you can be heard clearly.
      5. Make sure the webcam is placed in the right spot.
      6. Check your clothes and face and how they look on camera. Make any adjustments.
      7. Close out of any other programs that might interfere with the webcam. (Some webcams can be temperamental and not work with more than one type of video software at a time.)
      8. Check your internet connection and ensure it’s strong.
      9. Make sure you’re not inadvertently downloading something in the background (a movie on itunes, or dropbox quietly syncing 200 gigs). That will kill your video quality.
      10. Place a short video test-call to someone (if possible).
      11. If you tend to have 100 browser tabs open, it’s better to close them out. You don’t want a memory issue rearing up during your interview.
      12. Your browser should just have your email, the company website, maybe the LinkedIn profile of the person you’re interviewing with, maybe an interesting and recent piece of news about the company/industry.
      13. Have your resume, the job description, and your notes printed out and handy.
      14. Position a bottle of water nearby.

10. The Importance of Practicing

In the weeks, days, hours leading up to your video interview, we recommend very concerted practice to get comfortable both with your interview skills and the weirdness of interviewing on camera.

Interviewing is a skill (just like tennis, golf, or chess), so the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Practice with a friend, a counselor, a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a parent. If all else fails, Even better, record yourself answering questions on Big Interview or on your webcam or phone.

We can’t emphasize the importance of practice enough. This is why we created Big Interview — to give people a way to practice easily on their own (while also learning how to improve their answers).

11. Other Distractions

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Keep adults, children and pets away. You don’t want a cat jumping on the back of your chair, your mom hollering at you, or your toddler screaming right when you’re talking about how amazing and professional you are. Yes, we’re all human and we all have lives, but these distractions tend to diminish your credibility a smidge.

If there’s a risk of vacuums, leaf-blowers, and jack-hammers – try to plan ahead for these contingencies. And of course, if something really is unavoidable, you can:

      1. Apologize, address it very briefly, and move on.
      2. Mute your mic or blank your webcam for a moment and feign technical difficulties.
      3. A combination of 1 and 2.

And again, do not do your video interview in any public place (especially not a Starbucks). You’re just setting yourself up for distraction or disaster (or best case, just an unimpressive interview).

Final Thoughts

Another important point to keep in mind: it’s possible that your live video interview will be recorded for others to review. So multiple people could be influenced by your overall presentation in the interview.

The only problem is that someone viewing a video recording will nit-pick more things about you than someone who is live and paying attention to you in the moment.

So all of the above tips are doubly important for any pre-recorded interview, or a live video-interview recorded for later viewing and rating.

And lastly, of course it’s illegal (in the U.S.) to discriminate based on certain elements of your appearance — and it’s certainly unprofessional and shortsighted to prioritize appearance over ability to do the job. Unfortunately, we can’t control other people and the often-subconscious judgments they make. These are the same concerns you’d face in person.

However, you can control how you present yourself and take steps to put your best foot forward. You would take time to select the perfect suit for an in-person interview, so why not spend a little effort on your video set-up.

By mitigating technical, camera, and body-language-related factors, you improve the odds that they will focus on the substance of your answers and what you could do for the company.

Good luck on your next video interview.

The Shopping Checklist

Webcams:

Logitech C920

Logitech C930

Or something similar.

Lighting Set-Up:

2 x Clip Lights

2 x Full Spectrum CFL Bulbs

2 x Lighting / Muslin Clamps

1 x Rosco Diffusion Material (to soften the scoop light)

2 x Light Stands (these can either stand on their own, or on a desk)

1 x Pack of Clothespins (for keeping diffusion paper on scoop lights)

HUMOR: Here are Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson conducting a video interview.

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

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