Handling the video interview

Well, it happened again. I zipped into the bank drive-thru under the office tower near my building and stuffed my deposit into the cylinder that would ride a stream of air through three floors of brick and mortar. Say what you will about digital banking; I still enjoy deploying my money on its own version of a gerbil Habitrail, and getting the little slip of paper to confirm it reached the other side.

I don’t enjoy the waiting, though, especially since my bank launched a chitchat campaign requiring the tellers to ask about my weekend. As rude as it sounds, I’d rather not get personal with a teller I won’t see again -- this branch trades out employees faster than a losing ball team swaps pitchers.

So what, exactly, happened again? Just this: When the teller greeted me, she leaned way, waaaay into the camera and smiled, giving an uncanny impression of Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the 1960s television show. It turns out that getting too close to a camera will elongate your face, making your teeth look quite a bit larger than they really are.

Probably the most disconcerting interaction occurs when the teller’s eyes are focused in the wrong place, so they appear to be looking at my car door and not at me. This makes me aware that I’m probably doing it, too, as I tend to respond to the image on the screen, and not to the camera lens above it.

Fortunately, my performance on camera doesn’t count against me at the bank; unfortunately, job seekers interviewing for work may not be so lucky.

If you read recruiting blogs, as I sometimes do, you might know that headhunters have been using video interviewing for ages to help narrow the field of candidates while containing expenses. What began with VHS tapes and camera operators has morphed into automated computer sessions not even requiring an interviewer on the other end -- just a series of questions on the computer screen answered by a candidate desperately trying to remember to look at the camera.

The resulting electronic files can then be sorted by the recruiters on their own schedule, with the best being passed to the employer for review. Apparently this is a win-win for everyone, although I do wonder about the candidate: Who wants their job interviews to live forever in digital form? And what of the fantastic worker who just happens to resemble Mr. Ed on camera?

Luckily, video interviews are still less common than the in-person versions, and there are several elements the candidate can control. The first thing to know is that some interviews are two-way conversations over a laptop (think Skype), while others are variations of a one-way conversation. In either case, the employer/recruiter may send you to a location for the taping/interview, or may request that you use your own equipment.

These are all essential points to confirm when you first hear the words “video interview.” Despite the convenience of using your own laptop at home, consider that you will have fewer technical details to manage if you use their system, or if you find a service to handle the taping.

Once the technical issue is settled, you need to prepare for the session. Practicing with the setup is key, so if you’re not using your own equipment, arrange to arrive early enough for a dry run.

An online search will bring forward tons of tips for lighting, backdrop and camera, as well as outfits. In short: Put nothing distracting behind you, use enough light to illuminate your features but not wash you out, and wear no prints that will “vibrate” on screen.

When it comes to the session itself, remember that less is more. In the world of video interviews, small movements become sweeping gestures, paper shuffling sounds like a thunderstorm, and a moderate laugh brings back that Mr. Ed image. The trick, if you can master it, is to seem warm and engaging but not bigger than life.

Got all that? Good. Now go practice your answers and maybe we can all get down to the business at hand.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.