“When I reviewed the interview performance of over 200 students who applied to our training program in the last 5 years, the single biggest reason for a low interview score was ‘did not appear interested, no spark.’”
– Patrick Duff, M.D. Associate Dean for Student Affairs University of Florida College of Medicine
I’ll highlight this part: “did not appear interested, no spark.” This common issue may be a manifestation of nervousness or just the students’ natural personality. Regardless, there are ways to directly address interpersonal communication skills before your interviews. To keep things focused, I won’t go into more obvious tips such as good eye contact or asking thoughtful questions in this article. Instead, I’ll focus on one verbal (speech variations) and one nonverbal (positive energy) communication skill that I haven’t seen discussed often.
The two interpersonal communication skills detailed here include exercises and video examples which I personally used or created during my Theater major. Mastering and maintaining major behavioral changes like these take longer than just a few weeks but will really help you become a better communicator in the long run. There are still many variables discussed here, and it can be overwhelming to think about all of them. The key to improving interpersonal skills is to pick one thing to work at a time, master it, and gradually add more.
Integrating speech variations
One big secret about conversation is that the ability to create engaging conversations is not so much about WHAT you say but HOW you say it. Many variations like volume and pitch (intonation) are always present when you hear A-list actors talk about basically anything or general people talking about topics they are passionate about.
How do you practice speech variations? First, identify and isolate variables one by one. I’ll explore two major variables here: emphasis and tempo.
Emphasis: Practice emphasizing different words in a sentence. For example, say “I thought that it was good” out loud, then say, “I THOUGHT that it was good” with the emphasis on the capital word. Even the slightest emphasis on certain words punctuated with slightly higher volume or pitch can make a statement completely different and interesting. Work on mimicking specific individuals that you know can tell engaging stories. Being more in tune with popular culture personalities or watching talk shows is incredibly helpful for this. Practicing will feel unnatural at first, but over time it will become instinctive. Incorporating intonations into your natural speech is like riding a bicycle. At first, it’s very uncomfortable if you have a monotone, boring way of talking. Over time, patiently adding one variation at a time will make huge improvements. Many celebrities are masters at intonations as we will explore later with real examples.
Tempo: Several studies have shown that slightly fast talkers are often viewed as more credible and excited about whatever they’re talking about (Miller et al., 1976). You can actually observe this “fast talk” yourself from the most charismatic people at bars, mixers, etc. I’m not saying talk so fast that you seem nervous; there’s definitely a way to overdo this. Also be careful that talking fast doesn’t become a tool to ramble about irrelevant topics. However, many people naturally talk faster and seem more interested when they’re talking to people they like or are comfortable with. This is because in such situations, people are not THINKING about what they’re about to say next. The conversation flows faster and smoother because your brain is working on an emotional and improvisational level rather than a logical level. I’ve always implemented a slightly faster tempo during my interviews, especially when talking about things I’m passionate about or recalling a meaningful experience in medicine. Many students combine both a monotone pitch with slow, careful wording to create a deadly sleep-inducing cocktail that will bore your interviewer to death and make you seem not interested with “no spark.” You can always either record yourself (everyone hates listening to their own voice, but this helps), or ask a stranger to give you an unfiltered opinion. This is where constructive criticism comes in really handy.
Examples of individuals using speech variations
Two exercises to help with speech variations
Exercise A: Pretend like you’re telling your closest friend, cousin, or family the latest gossip. Or next time you are, pay attention to how your speech changes in tempo. Of course, during your interview, you would make sure to be professional and not actually talk about some topics that you would tell your closest friend, but imitate the variations in tonality and tempo. This is often when your voice is the most unhindered and comfortable. It’s natural and easy to listen to and engaging because you don’t have an agenda nor are you reciting memorized answers. This is what you should aim for.
Exercise B: Pretend like you’re talking about your passion to someone who is begging to know more about it from you and looks up to you. Everyone has one. Fitness junkie? Talk about macros and exercise sets. Spend hours playing a video game? Talk about playing with others and cheats. ANYTHING goes. When you’re passionate about something, you talk about it in a different way and for a longer time. Pay attention to these things and start assimilating the tonal changes into your “interview” speech.
Creating positive energy by smiling and laughing
What does “positive energy” even mean?! In every social interaction, there is an underlying dynamic or exchange of value giving and value taking. When you ask a question, for example, you are value TAKING. When someone responds with an answer, they are value GIVING. When you provide good vibes and make everyone laugh at a party, you are value GIVING. People who give social value freely and easily are those who attract others and make others want to be around them. A big part of value giving and building comfort involves taking the initiative of creating an environment with positive energy that can draw others in. This means that you assume the burden of smiling and laughing first, and this principle applies heavily during interviews.
Initiating smiling and laughing naturally easily communicates many positive characteristics: 1. you’re comfortable, 2. you’re secure with yourself, and 3. you’re a bright person who can create a positive environment that draws other people in. These are all traits of a great physician (or just human being in general). Many top celebrities are experts at creating this environment by smiling and laughing. I call these “filler smiles” or “filler laughs” when inserted into moments that don’t necessarily require one or isn’t intuitive for the average person yet “fills” the situation well. The laughs can seem fake sometimes (Jimmy Fallon), but nevertheless, they still create an overall atmosphere of lightheartedness enough to keep a 30 million dollar show afloat for years. Jimmy very consciously inserts these laughs to create this “positive environment” on his own talk show. This is most evident when you watch videos when HE is interviewed in a smaller setting. He is completely different and relaxed without his submissive filler laughs.
Examples using filler smiles and laughs
You’ve actually already seen examples of filler laughs from Chris Pratt and Will Smith. Rewatch the earlier video with that was supposed to be on speech variations. Instead of speech variations, keep track of how many times they wholeheartedly laugh. You’ll be surprised at how much they both utilize the laughing easily trait which makes them both extremely likable. For examples of two individuals who have completely mastered and essentially trademarked the smiling and laughing trait, watch this second video.
Exercises to practice initiating positive energy
Exercise A: Practice smiling in your daily life; it sounds weird but practice while you’re alone AND during conversations you have throughout the day. It will pay off. Obviously, don’t be creepy and smile in a completely random or unacceptable moment, but you’d be surprised how many moments could actually use a smile especially during introductions where the smile reinforces first impressions. Of course, most people can’t smile naturally on command; there are certain muscles that are active only when people genuinely smile. However, with practice over time (use a mirror!), you can learn to actually smile genuinely in moments where you normally would not have or were afraid to. Practicing smiling will help it feel more natural and can also provide side benefits, as certain behaviors can help you feel better just by doing them. Many studies support the notion that smiling can reduce stress responses (Kraft & Pressman, 2012).
Exercise B: Practice laughing easily; this one’s a little more difficult and should be attempted after you get better with smiling. One way to get started is breaking down and facilitating the physical process of laughing itself. For example, laughing requires the expulsion of air. One way to initiate laughter is to sharply exhale air through your nose. Now, when you’ve got that, practice pairing the air expulsion with eye squinting. Since everyone squints their eyes during a genuine smile, I’ve found that the combination of these two is enough to trigger an early form of an awkward no-teeth smile for me.
The next step is literally just to open your lips and show your teeth. If you practice this alone, you might feel so dumb NOT smiling while doing the air expulsion and squint that you’ll fall into naturally smiling. Roll with it! The next step is to now expel air with your mouth. Finally, make an audible noise (don’t worry about how it sounds in the beginning) while you exhale with your mouth. Refine these steps (use a mirror!) until you can essentially laugh naturally more frequently. Read neutral sentences. For example: “I actually had a crazy thing happen to me this morning,” and then practice saying this sentence with stacking the different steps of the “air expulsion laugh” at the beginning. You’ll be surprised to see how much room there is to insert those moments and make the environment significantly more lighthearted.
There are many other examples of nonverbal and verbal interpersonal communication skills that aren’t traditionally taught. It pays off to be confident in your ability to stand out from the thousands of other applicants during interviews. I dedicated as much time developing my interpersonal skills as I did on my grades. This really paid off in the long run in both surprising and predictable ways in networking and letters of recommendations. I believe that improving social skills is intrinsically linked to improving inner values including maturity and high self-esteem. I realized these skills were not only applicable to my general sociability but the ability to respond in stellar ways to make someone’s life better.
Making someone feel like they’re special, reading subtle behavioral signs (ex: crossing legs while standing indicates comfort as taught in FBI behavioral training), and learning to give off a genuinely positive energy require social and emotional intelligence. You’re a direct product of the time you put into things. Internal reflection and many interpersonal skills are not a largely emphasized part of the premed or medical training process, but I believe they should be, as they can lead to better patient care. Deliberate practice of interpersonal awareness and skills will be evident during interviews and many other scenarios down the road. I hope that this may help some students on that journey and wish you the best of luck!
Kraft, T. L., & Pressman, S. D. (2012). Grin and Bear It. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1372-1378.
Miller, N., Maruyama, G., Beaber, R., & Valone, K. (1976). Speed of speech and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(4), 615-624.
Other interview prep resources to check out to improve your interpersonal communication skills:
- Medical School Interview Masterclass with the Medical College of Georgia
- Interview Feedback: See sample interview questions from individual schools and read about other students’ experiences.
Updated July 28, 2020 with minor formatting corrections.