How to ace a phone interview

Telephone interviews are often the first hurdle in a job application process, but they can be disorientating and feel unnatural.

Career experts maintain, however, that you can increase your chances of getting through to a second interview by following a few simple steps.

Preparation

First of all, prepare as well as you would for a regular face-to-face interview, says Rebecca Fraser-Thill, from Fraser-Thill Coaching and Consulting in Portland, US.

“What I’ve often found is that people seem to be less prepared for phone interviews than they are for in person interviews, which really stands out,” she said. “The people who stand out are those who ask in advance who is going to be on the phone call, so if they send me an email, as a hiring manager, and say who can I expect to be phone conferencing with, that makes you stand out right away,” said Fraser-Thill.

“You’re going through the process of researching who will be in the room, rather than just jotting down their names frantically as they introduce themselves, which is awkward to say the least.”

Practice what you’ll say

Practising your lines is another important aspect of your preparation. “A number of people come across as quite rusty,” she cautioned. “I spend three nights in advance of any interview doing mock interviews with friends or my partner…You have to be “on” from minute one in a phone interview.

A key part of that rehearsal is to practice your articulation. “A lot of people come across as very low energy, with very garbled speech, and it’s hard to make a case for bringing someone forward when they sound like that,” said Fraser-Thill.

One of the biggest challenges of phone interviews is being unable to see body language or non-verbal cues that would help you to read the situation.

Time your answers

“I encourage people to keep a watch directly in front of them so that they can keep an eye on how long they are speaking. They shouldn’t be answering questions for more than two minutes,” Fraser-Thill recommended.

“It’s very easy to underestimate, especially when you’re receiving no feedback on the other end of the line. We tend to just keep talking when we don’t hear anything.”

And try to make each couple of minutes count, she continued. “Be specific. I find that on the phone people talk in much more vague, broad, sweeping generalisations and don’t use those illustrative examples that are very specific.”

Let your personality shine through the phone

During the interview it is also crucial to portray yourself accurately, Fraser-Thill added.

“If you are someone who is assertive about putting yourself forward, that’s who you should be on the phone. If you are somebody who is a bit more reserved, you should be that person,” she advised.

“There is nothing worse than having someone come in who was your top candidate on the phone as a hiring manager and then you meet them and within about ten minutes everyone knows it’s all wrong,” she said. “It’s going to waste their time and your time.”

The opportunity to shine in a telephone interview continues after the conversation stops.

Dress for the interview

Hannah Salton, a career coach and consultant, who runs her own business Hannah Salton Coaching, said the first step you should take ahead of the phone call is to clarify its structure, length and the type of interview.

It’s normal for a telephone interview to feel unnatural, she said.

“I think it’s helpful for you to dress professionally as it puts you in the right frame of mind and I definitely think you should still smile because it comes across in your voice even if people can’t see you,” Salton recommended.

Pay attention to the cues

Listening carefully is also very important. “If you are paying attention when you are listening, you might be able to pick up verbal cues,” she said.

And while the option to have detailed notes in front of you is tempting, it should be avoided, Salton advised.

“Having your CV and maybe a couple of key prompts can be helpful but I think if you are overwhelmed with pages and pages of perfect interview answers, it can feel quite stressful and stilted and often the interviewees are trained to pick up on stuff like that,” she warned.

“I would say use [notes] in moderation because you almost rely too much on them and they become a crux. The single biggest criticism I have in interviews are answers appearing unnatural and overly rehearsed and I almost think there is more risk of that happening in a phone interview,” she said.

Authenticity is key

“Being authentic, being natural, and being yourself is really important.”

Throughout the conversation, think about your pace. “Often people speak too quickly in interviews so do try and keep your pace natural but slow so that you give yourself enough time to think and also so that you have conviction and impact with what you are saying,” said Salton.

Post interview

Finally, don’t assume you have failed to get through to the next round if you have not heard back.

“If you were a clear no you would have been told straightaway so I think if you haven’t heard back..it’s absolutely the right thing to be pro-active and follow up,” Salton recommended.

“First of all, send an email the day of [the interview] saying thank you. That should be step number one. It should be within 24 hours but ideally before close of business that day,” said Fraser-Thill.

That should set the stage for someone to write back with some kind of guideline about when you are likely to hear the result.

How you follow up is important. “Sometimes candidates are worried about pestering people or bothering people but there is a way of reaching out that makes you look proactive rather than like you are complaining,” said Salton.

“Say something like – I’m just following up on the interview, I really enjoyed speaking to you, please let me know if there is anything else you need from me,” she suggested.

“Or you could say, I was just wondering if you knew when I was likely to hear back, or if there were any updates with a likely timescale. So you’re not being aggressive or negative but you’re just looking proactive and to see if there is anything you can do from your side.” Said Salton.

“My rule of thumb is that if a week past what they told you goes by, then email the person who wrote you back in response. I give them one extra week beyond what they told me it would be. And I’ve never encountered any pushback on that,” suggests Fraser-Thill.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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