Interviewing – Phone Interviews

In any conversation, a significant portion of our communication is non-verbal. Facial expressions, body positioning, where you look, how much you move around—both nervous movements like tapping your foot, or expressive movements like gesturing with your hands—all have an impact on the other party to the conversation. All of that is lost over the phone.

When you are participating in a phone interview there are a few things to keep in mind and a few adjustments to make to put yourself in the best position to shine.

First, the most important thing is to prepare for a phone interview exactly as you would for an in-person interview. Since phone interviews are typically used as an initial screening tool it will likely be brief. Brief doesn’t mean unimportant! This is an employer’s way of checking-in with a candidate who is qualified on paper to see how they react to basic questions or situations from the job in question. It is typically used to eliminate the candidate, rather than educate the employer. In other words, employers will almost never decide to hire you based only on a good phone interview, but they will most certainly reject you based on a bad phone interview.


Prepare for the call

Pick a quiet spot. Don’t call from your car, the library, or any other place where you have little control over background noises interrupting you. Try to find a quiet room at home where you won’t be interrupted. Warn your roommates or family, put a note on the door, and keep pets or children out of the room.

Be prepared. You should be sitting in your quiet spot, ready to go, at least 10 minutes before your scheduled start time. You don’t want to be rushed or surprised if they call a few minutes early.

Don’t trust technology. Ideally, you will make or receive these calls on a land line phone to reduce the possibility of bad connections, dropped calls, and interference. However, these days that may not always be possible. If you must use a cell phone, make a test call from the location where you intend to take the call to make sure you sound clear to the other party and you can hear well. Consider using your phone’s earbuds/mic if you know that delivers better sound. As backup, be sure you have a number for the employer that you can call back should you get disconnected. It’s also a good idea to verify that at the start of the call by simply asking “Can you hear me OK on your end? Great! If I get disconnected for some reason should I call you back at 203-123-4567?”.

Call waiting. If your phone has a call waiting feature, disable it temporarily for the interview. You don’t want an unexpected call distracting you or the interviewer.

Have your support materials ready. Print out a physical copy of the job description, a copy of your resume, and a list of questions for the employer. Highlight anything that you think you may have trouble remembering, or want to emphasize. Keep these handy and visible but avoid moving them around too much so they don’t make distracting noise and make it obvious you are “looking up an answer”. These are not documents you should be relying on to read from in an extensive way during the call. These are for quick glances to remind yourself about the prep you will have done prior to the call. You don’t want to sound as if you are reading a pre-prepared answer, or get so distracted by them that you stop paying attention to the interviewer and miss, or misunderstand, a question.

Have a notebook handy. As the employer asks a question, write down a keyword or two to remind you what to focus on in your answer.


Start Talking

If you can’t see the person you are interacting with, all that you have left is your voice—so use it well!

First, answer the phone with your name rather than “hello”. A simple “Joe Smith” is more professional and serves as instant confirmation for the employer that they called the right number. Also, don’t make assumptions about who is on the other end of the line based on who the call was set up with or the caller ID. If you answer “Hello, Ms. Jones!” and you are instead talking with Mr. Johnson because Ms. Jones is out sick, you have already started out on the wrong foot.

Be careful about your tone of voice. Tone can say more than the words themselves. Avoid speaking in a monotone that might put the interviewer to sleep. Varying your tone of voice can help communicate excitement, enthusiasm, and energy. Don’t go over the top with it, but if you are a little more animated over the phone than you would be in person that can help.

Smile. Yes, no one can see you, but smiling when you are talking has been shown in some studies to actually make you happy and increase your positive energy. Don’t fake a big forced smile, but a natural smile can help you relax and give you a leg up.

Watch your enunciation. Speak clearly and slowly. Remember, even if your connection is good and you can hear them clearly, they may not have as strong a connection on their end or may have more than one person listening by speakerphone. Be sure to pause for a second between the end of their question and the beginning of your answer in case there is an echo or transmission delay in the signal.

Protect your voice. Have a glass of water nearby in the event that your throat gets dry. Reaching for and drinking from a water glass during the interview can be distracting if they hear it on the other end of the line, so do so carefully and mute your phone if you can. A great tip to keep your voice clear is to eat a teaspoon full of honey about 30 minutes prior to your interview. This will coat your throat and keep it from getting scratchy and making you cough during the interview.

Be mindful of background noises. I’m not talking about a dog barking or traffic driving by your house. I’m assuming you have already found a nice, quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. By background noise I mean the small noises you generate yourself without noticing that can come up loudly on the other end of the line. Things like shuffling paper, a squeaky chair, breathing through your mouth into the microphone, etc. Do your best to minimize those noises during a call. One option is to mute your phone when you are not actively speaking. However, if the interviewer’s style is more conversational with lots of back and forth this may not work. You don’t want an awkward delay while you mute and unmute between quick answers.

Keep your answers brief. Remember, this is a first step. They aren’t going to hire you from a 20 minute phone call, so you don’t need to give every detail, but you want them interested enough that they want to hear more from you. You want to answer their questions fully, but concisely. Try to highlight accomplishments where you can. Keep your answers to 30 seconds or less. In a short interview like this you may only get 4-5 questions.

Like any interview, the goal is to get to the next step. The next step after a phone interview is typically an in-person interview. However, increasingly employers are building in additional steps especially for entry-level roles. It could be another phone interview with a different person, a more in-depth video interview (pre-recorded or live), or a work-based test project of some kind. Use the last few seconds at the end of the interview to ask what the next steps are for the employer, when they expect to make a decision, and if there is any other information you can provide. Close the call by thanking them for their time and reiterating your interest in the position.