Everyone knows it’s important to dress smartly for an interview. Less obvious is the importance of how you carry yourself.

Samuel Amegavisa is getting nervous. In his last year of human biology studies at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, it’s time to start thinking about job interviews.

“My situation is quite simple. I have never been interviewed before,” wrote 23-year-old Amegavisa in an email to BBC Capital. He had a basic question — one most of us probably don’t think much about. “Is there any recommended sitting position before and during your interview?”

While everyone knows it’s important to dress smartly for an interview, less obvious — and less known— is the importance of how you carry yourself. What hidden cues do you give when you walk through the doorway, shake hands or sit?

Three body language experts share their insights on what moves to make, and avoid, in an interview.

Happy medium

The first contact between an interviewer and interviewee is almost always a handshake. First impressions often determine how the rest of the interview goes, so this can be one of the most important elements of getting it right, according to David Alssema, a body language expert and training facilitator with Paramount Training & Development in Perth, Australia.

“Rapport is built by similarities,” so shake hands the way the interviewer does, recommended Alssema in an email. “Matching the strength or greeting shows you want to be an equal. Overpowering a handshake can signal a dominant attitude towards the meeting.”

Zones of space

No matter our culture, we all have and are at least subconsciously aware of four zones of space around us. They are (from farthest to closest): Public, social, personal and intimate. It’s important to be keenly attuned to these during an interview, according to Nick Morgan, Boston-based speech coach and author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact. “The only significant things that happen between people happen in personal and intimate space,” he wrote in an email. “Since intimate space is off limits [in an interview], you want to get into the personal space of the interviewer,” if you want the person to be inclined to decide in your favour.  

Make your move

While the handshake brings us into the personal space that we want — it’s why we do it, according to Morgan — typical seating arrangements in an interview tend to move us away. “That makes it easier for the interviewer to pass on us — but harder for us to make an impression,” he said. “So look for ways to tactfully move into the personal space of the interviewer.” For example, you might move your chair slightly or sit on the same side of a round table.

Once you’re seated, consider other ways to close the distance. Lean forward, for example, just not too much. “Try to do this tactfully and subtly, not rapidly or awkwardly,” cautioned Morgan. It’s worth the effort.

“We increase trust and connection with people when we close the distance between us, even by small amounts,” he said.

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Open for business

It’s very important to keep your body language “open,” according to Morgan. You’re likely to be nervous and you might find yourself unconsciously clutching your hands in front of you or folding your arms.  “These feel safe and comfortable, but also distancing and disconnecting for the other party,” he said. In addition, “[folding your arms] shows that you are disinterested, and it also prevents you from leaning,” said Alssema.

The eyes have it

“Eye contact is important, and any less or any more than a reasonable amount may indicate other attitudes,” said Alssema. What’s just right? That might be hard to tell in some situations, but Alssema suggests mirroring the amount of time the interviewer gives you eye contact. If there is a panel of interviewers, it’s important to provide the right mix of time for each person. “Respond to each person individually with eye contact when answering questions,” he said. “Glancing around is a signal for boredom, so avoid it if possible.”

People often make the mistake of equating good eye contact with never looking away — but this would be a mistake, too, according to Atlanta, Georgia-based Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of SNAP Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.

“It is normal to look away from time to time as you speak, because you’re accessing information in your brain,” she wrote in an email. Just don’t let yourself drift off when the interviewer is speaking. “After giving an answer, remember to make eye contact and listen to the interviewer. Eye contact sends the message that you are serious and engaged,” Wood said.

Don’t forget to breathe — deeply

The moment people get nervous, the more quickly they start breathing. That can wreak havoc in an interview.

When you take quick shallow breaths, you reduce your ability to think clearly,” said Wood. “This may keep you from answering questions quickly and succinctly.”

Instead, try to breathe deeply from low down in your belly. “[It is] one key to feeling clearheaded, energised, and confident,” she said. “Practice breathing more slowly, using your diaphragm, belly, rib cage and lower back in the process.” Of course, this isn’t something you’ll want to do in your actual interview. “But try it whenever you get anxious and certainly before your interview,” she said.

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Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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