Displaying a lack of confidence can sink a job interview. However, it’s also possible to go too far in the other direction, where you come off as cocky or obnoxious. This can hurt your chances as much as being too nervous or unsure of yourself.
So where do you draw the line? What’s a healthy amount of confidence, and how much is too much? The short, frustrating answer, of course, is that it depends. But rather than just ending the conversation there, let’s take a deeper look at what your confidence level says about you as a potential employee.
Think about what you’re projecting.
In a job interview, what you’re projecting is always more important than how you actually feel. And too many people don’t realize there’s often a huge gulf between those things. Sometimes, a person will talk loudly out of nervousness, but other people in the room will interpret that loudness as boldness. Or a person might be so energized by a conversation that their hands start shaking, making them appear nervous.
It takes a good deal of self-awareness to be able to determine the difference between these things, and self-awareness is a difficult skill to teach. However, there are some simple things you can do to start developing it.
First off, you should do practice interviews with people you trust. When you’re done, ask them to talk about their thoughts. Of course, those people’s opinions will likely be skewed by the fact that they already know you and will have a richer personality profile to judge your actions by. But this can be a good first step toward a more self-aware you.
Something you could try, depending on your location, is finding some local meetup groups dedicated to job seeking, or to self-betterment. This might give you an opportunity to talk to someone you’ve never met, who will be more qualified to rate their first impression of you. See if you can organize a group meetup where several people who have never met each other perform mock interviews and give each other tips for improvement. Obviously, this is not something that will be available to everyone, but if you start looking for groups like this, you might be surprised by what already exists in your area.
You could also try filming yourself while you speak. Don’t watch the footage for a few days, giving you enough time to disconnect from the emotions you were feeling while you recorded it. When you do watch the footage, try to do so from an outsider perspective. Obviously, that’s easier said than done, but you might be surprised to notice how many times you say “um,” or how often you blink your eyes. Once you’re aware of the personal quirks you display in your speech patterns and facial movements, you can start working to have some command over those things.
The same sentence can mean radically different things based on how it was said. Don’t believe us? Well, we’re going to try to convince you.
Picture this: You’re in a coffee shop and the elderly man in front of you pays for his latte. In the process, he drops a five-dollar bill on the floor without realizing it. You reach down to pick it up, then outstretch your hand and say, “Excuse me, sir.”
Okay, now picture this: You’re on a crowded sidewalk and someone bumps into you aggressively. You turn around and say, “Excuse me, sir.”
In both cases, the words you spoke were exactly the same. However, in the first instance, you probably pictured a soft, gentle, polite tone, while in the second you pictured an aggressive, confrontational, sarcastic one. The first example was warm and caring, the second was cold and defensive. In the first example, the meaning was, “You dropped this on the floor, and I am handing it back to you so you don’t lose it.” In the second, the meaning was, “Watch where you’re walking, you jerk!” So yes, the same sentence can mean radically different things based on how you say it, and what’s happening around you.
The reason this is important is because too many people, inexperienced in job interviews, will say something like, “I believe I can do that,” in response to a question about their skill level. What they don’t realize is that they said it as if it had a question mark at the end of it, signaling to the interviewer that they weren’t actually confident they could do the thing in question. Or they might say it with a twinge of cynicism, giving the interviewer the impression that of course they could perform the task but they find it beneath them. Not being aware of how you’re saying something can project the wrong confidence level about the thing you’re talking about.
Yes, this is reiterating our previous point a bit, but it’s important to note that you should always try to be aware of more than just the content of your spoken words, but also the tone and the context of those words.
Cynicism is a sinking ship.
We hinted at this in the previous point, but we want to dig in a little deeper. Oftentimes, cynicism makes the difference between too much confidence and the right amount. If you combine your confidence with a cynical outlook, you’re going to project a cocky, judgmental version of yourself that few people are going to want to be around.
By “cynicism,” we specifically mean anything that adds a negative spin to your words. For example, when asked about your ability to perform a specific task, you might say “I can do that,” with a smug smirk, which projects the idea that you think the question was ridiculous, or that the person asking it was wrong to do so. Alternatively, you might answer “I suppose I could,” which suggests that you are able to perform the task but would perform it begrudgingly. A much better answer would be, “I would love to,” or, if you don’t feel like you would actually love to do the task, you could say, “Absolutely.”
Those are just a couple examples of unnecessarily inserting cynicism into your interview. Keep in mind that your facial expression will also be important here, and that’s something you might be less aware of (as we mentioned in earlier points).
Charisma can save the day.
The flipside to cynicism is charisma. Charisma and confidence are often seen as the same thing, but they’re not equals. Yes, confident people are more likely to be charismatic than unconfident ones, but charisma is more about magnetism than true confidence.
Charismatic people will naturally draw other people to them. It’s a difficult quality to quantify in many cases, because there’s no single feature that we can point to as fundamentally charismatic. Many people find that people who smile are more charismatic than people who frown, but there are many smiling people who are completely off-putting, as well as a good number of frowning Freddies (or frowning Frannies) who are absolutely magnetic.
The general rule, though, is that being genuine, polite, and upbeat will be seen as charismatic, while appearing fake, rude, and grouchy will be off-putting. But, again, we can think of dozens of counterexamples.
We’re a little bit out of our depth here, so we’re going to point you to an article on Healthline that explains some of the science behind charisma, while giving some advice on practicing it. It’s a good resource for understanding what it is that draws other people to you.
Your confidence level should be appropriate for the position you’re applying to.
This probably goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway: The appropriate confidence level will change based on which position you’re trying to get. Someone applying for a leadership position will want to err on the side of confidence, while an entry-level employee will want to err on the side of humility.
And sometimes, cultural norms can make the context feel completely random. Some companies value confidence highly, while others value vulnerability. These instances can be hard to anticipate and plan for, but it’s always best in an interview to follow the lead of your interviewer.
As you can see by now, the appropriate level of confidence is something of a moving target. However, we hope the advice we’ve given here gets your intellectual gears turning. There’s a lot to think about, and this article is designed more as a launchpad into the conversation than a comprehensive discussion. The topic of confidence can fill several books, and in fact it already has.
Good luck on your interview!