Pictures Came and Broke Your Heart: Video interviewing for the middle-aged

It’s a different world, my friends.

Back in the old days—say, 10 years ago—a job interview was a strictly in-person thing. You might talk to someone on the phone; you might even have a conference call, if the people you were interviewing with were particularly tech-savvy and had the right setup for it. But remote working, teleworking, and the gig economy have changed a lot of that. We aren’t necessarily working in-person. Remote teams sometimes function in an always-on video mode, or at least have daily stand-up meetings with everyone checking in from their webcam at home.

Some people take to the webcam world like proverbial ducks to water. It’s not necessarily an age thing, either—my mother-in-law and her brothers, all in their mid-70s, are some of the most avid Skypers I know, and I know a lot of Baby Boomers who can’t function without a daily FaceTime with their Millennial kids. But I think those of us who grew up in a time without ubiquitous photography tend, overall, to be less comfortable with it.

Early 80s photo portrait of a teenager
The result of a special deal at the portrait studio

Those of us who are entering middle age (and those of us who have been here for a while) grew up in a time without ubiquitous photography. We went to a “portrait studio”—often one inside a department store—once every couple of years, when our parents got suckered in by some special offer, or our friends took snapshots on their Instamatics and gave us a print or two if they’d splurged on double prints at the Fotomat. We threw away the bad photos. We grew up largely unaccustomed to seeing ourselves caught on film unguarded and unprepared.

But the generation that came after us has been on camera much of their lives. We’ve had cameras on our cell phones for barely 10 years yet, but that still means that recent college graduates have had cameras on their phones since they’ve had phones. They’ve grown up with the knowledge that pretty much anywhere they go, there’s somebody with a camera. They’re used to it. We’re… not.

So my most important tip for middle-aged people faced with upcoming Skype interviews is this: Try to get more comfortable in front of the camera.

I know it’s hard. It’s hard enough when you accidentally catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and realize that the face looking back at you is actually YOURS. Because in our heads, we look different. Thinner, or dewier, or thicker-haired, or something. That accidental jolt of reality can be disheartening. And it’s nothing compared to watching yourself in a Skype window on your laptop with an integrated webcam aimed straight at the thin spot in your hair that you spend 15 minutes every morning trying to cover up with your bangs.

But you know what? You get used to it after a while. You start to realize that this is you; you sort of quit expecting to see your bright-eyed 1987 face when you accidentally pass a mirror. You quit paying so much attention to your picture in the little frame on your laptop screen instead of the face of the person you’re talking to (who, truth be told, doesn’t look any better than you do). But the only way I’ve found to get to that point is to practice. Find a friend or a relative or someone you love no matter what they look like, and who returns that sentiment, and Skype with them. Even if (or maybe especially if) it’s your spouse, your kid, or your best friend from fourth grade. You’ll see that 1) nobody looks that great on a webcam, unless they have a professional studio setup; and 2) IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER. And you’ll probably start to get more at ease in front of the camera.

Look on the bright side

As much as I hate video interviewing, there are actually some big advantages. For one, you don’t have to worry much about dressing up. Sure, wear pants. Everybody tells you that. But some of the middle-aged problems of real-life interviews are just not problems on Skype or Google Hangouts. A video interviewer can’t see the river of menopausal sweat pouring down your back, or that the front of your blouse is mostly held together with safety pins. If you’re an aromatherapy person, you can diffuse lavender and chamomile or whatever you use to make yourself feel calmer, and nobody’s the wiser. You can sit there with a pen and a notepad nodding from time to time and looking like you’re taking notes when you’re really writing something like “WHAT THE ACTUAL F*** IS THIS PERSON EVEN TALKING ABOUT?”* and not worry that you’ll accidentally drop your notepad when you get up to shake everybody’s hands (with your cold, clammy one—because again, menopause) and your interviewer will pick it up and read it with growing outrage, and she will dismiss you on the spot and then tell everyone on LinkedIn not to hire you, and… okay, well, maybe that’s just me.

Anyway.

There are a lot of things you can do to help yourself be more comfortable in front of the camera. Besides the mental stuff I mentioned earlier, here are some concrete physical things that can really help you feel prepared.

Equipment

One thing you can do is get a good webcam and set it up. I couldn’t believe the difference when I did this, and it wasn’t expensive; you can get a not-bad one for less than $30, a nice one for $40, and one that’s probably overkill unless you’re planning a career as a YouTuber for $60. Mine was $40 on sale at Best Buy, and it’s over-the-top good. I even had qualms about the high quality (one reviewer said, “every pore and ingrown beard hair will be visible,” which almost made me not buy that model), but it actually looks better, because it automatically adjusts the light and the focus, and somehow does that in a fairly flattering way. I’ve used it for still photos, too—it’s good for the kind of in-between-a-selfie-and-a-professional-head-shot pic that most people I know use on LinkedIn and other social media.

LinkedIn photo of strikingly attractive freelance copyeditor.
My actual LinkedIn photo, taken with my webcam. I like it better than my Olan Mills special from 1980 (above).

Lighting

Adjust your lighting so that it looks natural, and so you’re frontlit, not backlit (this video gives an excellent overview of how to set up your lighting and your webcam; I can’t really add anything to it).

Like the guy in the video, you can use a variety of kludges to get your camera set so that you’re looking straight at it while you’re also watching the screen. That makes it look like you’re looking right at the interviewer—although to be honest, none of my interviewers have ever done this. They’ve all looked like they’re looking off to the side or out the window or at a point above my head, and honestly, it drives me up the wall. I don’t feel like I’m making a connection with a real person because they never make even simulated eye contact.

But you know what? Nearly every woman my age or older who I’ve talked to about this says exactly the same thing. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it’s a thing we just have to get over, like people who hit redial without listening to their voicemail or the idea that someone you interviewed with will actually contact you to let you know you didn’t get the job.

Sound

Headphones are a good idea. A microphone is a good idea. A headset makes you look like a stock photo from a 1990s computer-supply catalog, but it’s still a good idea.

Woman with a headset, trying to sell you a Performa 6116CD for ONLY $1699.
The Mac Warehouse Woman, courtesy of an amazing nostalgic post at https://dghmedia.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/flashback-to-1996/.

Makeup

At this point in my life, I have lost interest in makeup. It was fun when I was 14 and had a deep and abiding interest in what color eyeshadow would really make my eyes pop, but now? Meh. So I am not the best person to give makeup tips. If you like makeup, you already know all of this stuff, so keep your own counsel. But if, like me, you’re not a regular makeup wearer, you might find some of it useful.

The main thing is this: Where video interviews are concerned, matte is good; shiny is bad. I’m not sure, but I think the reason for this is that a shiny face can distract an interviewer like nothing else. So think back, again, to being 14 and looking for “shine-free” on every bottle of makeup. Even if it’s nothing you want to wear in everyday life, a matte foundation is good. And powder. Pressed powder seems to do better than loose (I had to dig way, way back in my memory to recall what the different kinds of powder are). These days, there are whole lines of makeup meant to be photographed in (L’Oreal, Cover Girl, Revlon, and Maybelline all make them, if you’re more comfortable at CVS than Sephora). Foundation, powder, blush—even contouring kits. I remember the 80s too well to ever try contouring again, but I will mention that the weird-looking color concealers are pretty great. After my first Skype interview a couple of years ago I started using a green concealer under my foundation to cover the ruddy complexion that Oklahoma and genetics have visited upon me, and it’s like MAGIC. Now I use it every time I wear makeup.

As for the rest of it—eye shadow, lipstick, mascara, eyeliner—whatever. You’re middle-aged. Do what you want. Unaccented eyes aren’t going to distract from your interview, but a shiny forehead might. If you want some good middle-aged makeup tips, there are many excellent videos out there.

Clothes

Here’s a tip from my days videotaping university faculty (a group not widely known for their fashion sense): DO NOT WEAR PRINTS ON CAMERA. Seriously, no prints. Even the subtlest glen plaid will look like it’s jumping around when you wear it on camera. Wear solids. Collars are good, whether you’re male or female. And do I even have to tell you to wear pants?

Distractions

Try to prevent the obvious ones—children should know not to interrupt, pets should be shut away someplace, you should use a chair that doesn’t squeak or make embarrassing noises. You can’t help things like leaf-blowers in the neighbor’s yard or tornado sirens (although if the tornado sirens are going off, I suggest excusing yourself from the video call and taking shelter—or at least unplugging your equipment before you go outside to watch the storm, if you live in Oklahoma or Texas). In my experience, distractions like that are just a part of video calls. Learn to ignore them.

Conclusion

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that really, nobody expects anybody else to look very good in a Skype interview. Your interviewers probably don’t care what you look like on video, or whether you’re looking right at them or off to the side. So try not to worry about it, and try to focus on the interview. Scribble on a notepad or squeeze your tension ball under your desk or take a deep breath of lavender-scented cool steam, and just be thankful that you didn’t have to go out into a 105-degree day in a suit and spend two hours in a roomful of strangers, like you did 10 years ago.

And good luck.

* A purely theoretical example, of course.