Ferdinand Petra started his banking career as an associate at J.P, Morgan. After four years, he moved to Barclays’ investment bank, where he spent five years as a vice president (VP) in client coverage. Now an affiliate professor of finance at elite business school HEC in Paris, Petra also trains M&A analysts in investment banks and corporates and has run an M&A interview preparation company. If anyone knows about non-verbal communications in financial services, it is, therefore, he.
According to Petra, there are three essential pieces of body language for financial services interview success. We’ve listed these below, supplemented with suggestions from Patti Wood, a body language expert who coaches Wall Street bankers. This is what you need to know.
1. Never project nervousness. Never imply negativity
When you’re sitting in front of an interviewer, you should never play with a pen or fiddle with things – this will simply convey that you’re stressed. Most importantly, when you’re asked a difficult question, Petra says you must be very careful not to manifest the two signs of defensiveness: don’t lean back in your chair and don’t cross your arms or legs (and particularly do not do the two things at the same time).
“Fiddling things is what I call a ‘self-comfort cue,” says Wood. “You sit there, fiddling with your shirt collar, or your watch and what you’re really doing is creating an excuse to touch yourself, which stimulates chemicals that are reassuring to you.” It’s incredibly important that you don’t seek this kind of reassurance when you’re answering questions about your suitability for the job and, says Wood.
Similarly, she says any attempt to protect the ‘windows to the body’ – the heart, chest, neck, mouth, eyes, or hands – can be interpreted as hiding something or holding something in. For this reason, crossing your legs, putting a hand to your neck, or shielding your eyes, are all inadvisable.
2. Anticipate the bodily cues of the people you’re interacting with
“When you stand up suddenly to shake hands, you will give the person who’s interviewing you the impression that you’re not prepared,” says Petra. Instead of waiting seated for the precise moment of the handshake, you need to anticipate the event: be ready, not flustered.
“You need to ease yourself into the handshake,” says Wood. “You shouldn’t be jumping up to shake hands. When you’re waiting for the interviewee, sit down on the edge of the seat in the waiting area so that you can rise easily and confidently.” For the same reason, Wood says you should avoid looking at your phone before the interview. And when the interview’s over, she says you should shake hands before you gather up your stuff.
3. There is more to a handshake than you think
The handshake is all-important, but it is not all. Petra says you need to coordinate shaking hands with two other essential elements: smiling and looking someone in the eye. Practice the ensemble before you go in. “I always get my students to practice this with their friends,” Petra tells us.
Wood says execution of the handshake-eye-contact cluster should depend upon the gender of those involved. Male-to-male handshakes require eye contact of at least three seconds: anything less suggests weakness. Female-to-male handshakes require two seconds’ eye contact, a look away, and then a look back: three seconds of solid staring implies sexual interest; two seconds of staring followed by a glance away and a glance back implies that you’re not coming on to someone, but are prepared to interact robustly with them in a business environment.
All handshakes should also involve full frontal alignment between the parties concerned.”Your body windows need to be aligned to the other person’s,” says Wood. “During a handshake you are saying I trust you, and yet I am threatening your vulnerable areas and you are doing the same to me. You are both sizing each other up and determining who will be alpha.”
Handshakes should also always be palm to palm, says Wood. Women must resist the temptation for ‘finger shakes’: “You don’t want to present your femininity first in a business situation. You want to show that you are strong and powerful and unafraid.”