Mastering the Phone Interview

Image may be everything, but in a phone interview it’s what you say that counts. Telephone interviews can seem deceptively easy, at least on the surface: You can be anywhere—in another country, just getting out of bed, in your car—and participate. And you’re on your own turf where you may feel more comfortable speaking of your talents and fit for a job than in a formal meeting with a hiring manager.

This lack of face-to-face interaction, however, is exactly why phone interviews are tricky. Unable to pick up on body language and facial expressions, a hiring manager can misinterpret some of the things you say. And qualities such as charisma and sense of humor don’t necessarily translate easily over the phone. Because companies often use these interviews as screening devices, it’s crucial that you prepare well for them. Here are some suggestions to help you ace the call:

"Fluffy, Spot and I aren’t home right now." Unless you’re applying for a position at a pet emporium, it’s going to be difficult for most hiring managers to see you as a professional when they hear this on your machine. Save the humorous or cute answering machine messages for once you’ve found a position. If you do receive a voice mail from a prospective employer, return it promptly.

"Who is this?" Because you don’t want to mistake a job contact for a telemarketer—or forget you even applied for a position at a particular firm—keep a list of the hiring managers’ names and their respective companies near your phone for reference. While the initial call is usually designed to set up a time for the phone interview, it still doesn’t hurt to have your resume nearby to use as a reference in case there are a few job-related questions at this time. The upside of a phone interview is that you can have all the resource materials you want on hand while you’re talking to a hiring manager.

Tranquility now! If possible, arrange the interview at a time when you can sit at a desk with your notes in front of you—away from barking dogs, singing neighbors or crying babies. Optimally, there should be no other person present while you’re talking with a prospective employer. If another call comes in during the interview, don’t answer it. If you have call waiting, you might consider disabling it. If you’re using a cell phone for the interview (which should be a last resort), try to make certain the signal remains strong throughout the conversation.

Put away your bunny slippers. Assuming your phone interview is scheduled (and not a surprise), it’s a good idea to dress the part. No, this doesn’t mean you have to put on a suit. After all, one of the advantages of the telephone is that the other person canOt see you. However, answering questions in your Winnie the Pooh pajamas may not help you get into the most interview-ready frame of mind. Dressing in something professional will help you feel more confident.

Do your homework. Prepare for a telephone interview just as diligently as you would for an in-person meeting. Research the company and anticipate the types of questions you might be asked. The initial discussion probably won’t be too detailed, but be prepared to answer the following questions:
• Can you tell me a little about yourself and your work history?
• What interests you about this job?
• What skills can you bring to this position?
• Can you tell me about your current job? (Or, if you’re unemployed, what you’ve been doing in your spare time.)
• What sort of work environment brings out your best performance?

Before the telephone interview, write down the key points you want to convey as well as any questions you would like to ask. During the discussion, have a copy of your resume, work samples you may have sent, and a pen and paper so you can take notes on the position.

Avoid chatter. There may be an awkward silence after you’ve answered a question while the interviewer takes notes on the conversation. Don’t keep talking just to fill these pauses—you may end up saying something you regret. Instead, wait patiently for him or her to continue.

Just smile. The tone and inflection of your voice play just as big a role as what you’re saying when it comes to the impression you make during a telephone interview. Smile as you speak—it will be reflected in your voice. Also, try to answer questions in complete sentences rather than simply providing "yes" or "no" responses, which can make you sound disinterested or unfriendly.

End on a high note. Thank the interviewer for his or her time. If he or she doesn’t suggest an in-person interview, you may ask about how the company plans to proceed—for example: "I’ve really enjoyed talking with you and learning more about the firm. Can you tell me what the next steps will be in the hiring process?" Because most hiring managers have made a decision about whether to invite you to an in-person meeting by the end of a phone interview, it’s fine to ask.

Last, remember to be yourself. Creating a quiet space to talk, researching the company and being professional are all important in a phone interview, but so is personality: You’re going to make a better and lasting impression if you seem like a "real" person on the other end of the line, not just a someone answering questions. So let your warmth and sense of humor (within reason) show through. You’ll increase your chances of being asked for an in-person interview and landing a new job!

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.