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How to Do Well in a Phone Interview

In our current pandemic world, in-person interviews have been largely replaced by telephone and video interviews, at least until the final interview. This means there is a high likelihood that the initial screening interviews will be by phone and sometimes even the second or final interview, although those are now more commonly done with video calls. 

First, some general information about a phone interview, regardless of whether it’s a screening call or a formal interview call.

Phone interviews are both good news and bad news, depending on how well you’ve prepared for this type of interview. One thing to keep in mind is that many times a phone interview call will be unscheduled and unexpected. They can come at any time, so it’s important to prepare yourself as soon as you’ve applied.

On the good side, you can be exceptionally well prepared. Since you can’t be seen, you’re able to have as much information as you want in front of you during the call, such as:

  • The job posting
  • Your research notes
  • Your resume
  • The questions you want to ask
  • The answers you developed for common interview questions you may be asked

On the downside, you can’t see the interviewer and will be unable to read their facial expressions and body language. And the same applies to them.

Since you can’t be seen, you’ll be judged at least partly by how your voice comes across over the phone. Any negative speaking habits you may have will be magnified. Take particular care to avoid common bad habits such as constantly saying ‘you know’, or ‘um’s’ and ‘uh’s’. 

These things can be buried deep as habits and you’ll need to make a conscious effort to avoid them during a phone interview. I recommend you practice a few of your prepared interview answers with a friend who can give you objective feedback about any repetitious habits you may have.

As a Hiring Manager, I’ve done initial interviews by phone with many people over the years. I can tell you for sure that since your voice is the main thing I have to concentrate on, I’ll pick up on every odd or repetitious talking habit you may have. 

I’ll also confess that they can be the main things I remember about you.

I’ll give you a perfect example. I once had a phone interview with a person who ended almost every sentence with the phrase “you know what I mean.” Over and over! After 10 or 15 times of hearing this, it was all I could do to not shout “No, I don’t know what you mean!”. 

As you may have guessed, this applicant was not scheduled for a subsequent interview.

I put phone interviews into two categories: the ‘screening’ phone interview and the ‘formal’ interview. Let’s discuss first the screening phone interview.

The Screening Phone Interview

Screening interviews are typically done after all resumes have been reviewed. For those that meet the job requirements, formal interviews are sometimes scheduled for the best candidates. Other times, screening interviews are done to decide who gets a formal interview. 

The person doing the screening interview (this is frequently someone from HR) will usually ask some general questions to establish that you meet the minimum qualifications and to judge how well you come across on the phone. These calls typically determine who is recommended to the Hiring Manager for a formal interview.

Screening interviews themselves are pretty informal. As such, they are usually made with no advance notice. This means you’ll need to be prepared as soon as you apply. You may get a phone call and find yourself speaking to an HR person who asks if you have some time to answer a few questions. 

Or, in other words, do you have some time to lightly step around some verbal land mines!

This is exactly why you need to have your “60-second marketing message” prepared and memorized in advance. You just never know when you’ll get that call and you need to be able to quickly recap why you’re a great candidate.

If you do well in the screening interview, the interviewer may even schedule a second and formal interview while on that call. If not, you’ll be contacted afterward to schedule another interview if you make the cut. Be sure to ask what the next step will be before the call is over.

The Hiring Manager does not usually do phone screening interviews unless it’s a small company. HR more commonly does them due to the volume and the informal nature. But that doesn’t mean they are unimportant and you can take them lightly. If you stumble badly that may be as far as you go.

Although most formal interviews are now conducted via video calls, (unless of course, they are in-person, which is infrequent due to the pandemic) phone calls are still occasionally used, particularly in situations where poor online connectivity makes a video call impractical.

I interviewed once with an Internet startup and it was a phone interview because people from three different states and two European countries were on the panel, so they made it a conference phone call. After I made it past this initial interview, I had one final interview in person, after which I was offered the job. 

Remote video technology is now advanced enough that today this interview would likely be a video interview. But smaller companies may still do formal interviews by phone if they don’t have a robust IT infrastructure.

The Formal Phone Interview

Unlike the more informal screening phone interview, which may arrive unexpectedly, a formal phone interview will usually be scheduled with you in advance. This gives you the chance to properly prepare, which you should do just as thoroughly as if it was an in-person interview. 

The fact that you can refer to your notes during the interview is a huge advantage so make sure you prepare them in advance. You won’t be able to use your notes in an in-person interview or a video interview, so I can’t stress enough the importance of leveraging this in a phone interview.

Just because it isn’t in person, don’t underestimate the importance of a phone interview, regardless of whether it’s a screening interview or a formal interview. It may be the single thing that determines if you get a second interview or perhaps even get the job.

Best Phone Interview Tips

Below are my best tips for all phone interviews, from my perspective both as a Hiring Manager and as someone who has been on the receiving end as an applicant.

  • Stand up and move around a bit while on your phone interview. Your voice will sound more confident and powerful and you’ll come across as more enthusiastic.
  • Be sure to smile frequently! It will be reflected in your voice whether you realize it or not.
  • Always have pen and paper ready so you can take notes during the call. These will help you a great deal towards the end of the interview if you use those notes when asking your questions. This is flattering to the interviewers and demonstrates good listening skills.
  • Have the job advertisement and your resume in front of you. You’ll be better prepared to give answers that show how your qualifications are a good fit for the job as advertised. 
  • Don’t use a speakerphone on your end, even though it’s likely the interviewer is on a speakerphone at the other end, with several other people in the room. You want your voice to come through as loud and clear as possible.
  • If your phone interview is scheduled so you know when to expect it, make it a point to dress as if it was an in-person interview. Much like smiling, this will make your voice sound a bit more confident.  Believe it or not, this works.
  • People conducting phone interviews tend to run out of things to say more often than in person. If you can keep the conversation going by asking some of the questions you prepared in advance, you can avoid some awkward moments. Hiring Managers who are poor conversationalists will appreciate your ability to keep the interview flowing smoothly.
  • Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, don’t eat, chew gum, smoke, or drink during a phone interview. The only exception is to have a glass of water in reach in case your mouth gets dry.

Follow these tips and you just might find yourself invited to a second or final interview.

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