Monday, May 9, 2011

A Suit for A Phone Interview? Use ALL of Your Communication to Rock the Call

(Personal note: My blog started just one month ago. I want to offer deep appreciation and thanks for the support and feedback! Over 1700 hits in four weeks--that's just crazy in an awesome way. This is an exciting adventure and I hope the information will help many! Students who are reading, time to look at the e-mail to the right of your screen and send me some questions! What issues do you face with professors? If you are coming into college in the fall, what concerns you about working with professors? Your name will be omitted from your question, of course. Back to the point:  Immense thanks to all... now on to phone interviewing.)
It's job hunting season for so many. Time to talk about communication with an employability twist once again.

Today's topic? Using all of your communication skills to rock a telephone interview!

You may be thinking, "Of course, I'll use my comm skills for my phone interview. I'm going to talk, aren't I?"

I'm talking about using your words (verbal communication) and your body language, voice, and facial expressions (nonverbal communication) to enhance those words. 

You're now thinking, "But the person on the other end can't see my face. What kind of advice is that?"

My response:  You'd be surprised just how much your nonverbals can impact the words you say. In fact, nonverbal communication can "count" as much as 90% over the spoken word!

Okay, enough with the stats... I'll kick off with a little story:

Back in 1999 (sounds like 100 years ago, I know!), college budgets were shrinking, just like they are today. Similar to the current job market, initial interviews often occurred on the phone.

(No, not a corded phone. Not that long ago).

Every day, I dreamed about the moment when the phone would ring, indicating hope that I could actually earn the teaching job I so desperately wanted.

As a matter of fact, I was dreaming when that call came. 

You know how when you are really, really tired, you sort of die a small death overnight? I was in that kind of sleep.

The phone rang at 7 a.m. 

“Hello.” I sounded like I just ate gravel.

“Yes, this is Mr. Eastern Standard Time Zone from Early Hour College calling for our phone interview with Ms. Bremen.” (Not their real names).

“Bu… But… our interview is at 10,” I rasped.

“Ms. Bremen, it's 10 a.m. here."

Oh, crap. I didn't say this, but I was sure thinking it.

Before I could utter another word, I slammed water with the hope of clearing my voice.

Water wasn't working after the abrupt wake up from the death sleep. I sounded like Miley Cyrus (or Stevie Nicks... from my day) with a bad upper respiratory infection.

I couldn't ask to reschedule the call, so we proceeded.

This was my first interview for my dream career! It wasn't supposed to start with me in my rumpled flannel pajamas (yes, the yellow ones with cats holding umbrellas), my short hair matted and punk, and my mind as fuzzy as my slippers.

I stumbled through that interview. It was bad. I never heard from that college again.

Don't feel too sorry for me. I recovered from that mess. In fact, because of a certain specialization in my field, I was lucky enough have more interviews than I knew what to do with over the years. And, like that early morning in '99, most of those interviews began on the phone.

Let's talk about how to survive and thrive (cheesy, but true!)--using every communication attribute available--during these sometimes challenging calls. I'm going to start with nonverbal communication. Some of this advice may seem a little strange, but stay with me. It works!

-Dress for it. 
That's right. Treat the phone interview like a real interview and wear what you would if it were in person. From a nonverbal communication standpoint, your clothing says a ton about you. In this case, the message will be sent... to yourself. You will feel more confident and communicate more professionally, even in your business casual clothes, than if you wear your grungies--or flannel PJ's.

Yes, in future calls, I felt a little silly sitting in my kitchen in a suit that I was only going to take off seconds after the interview ended. But I did treat the experience like a business transaction.

-Use gestures, vocal variety, facial expressions--just like you would in a face-to-face meeting.
"Smile before you pick up the phone!" People who work in customer service hear this all the time. Why? Because your smile comes through your voice. In a phone interview, your nonverbals can be "read" and you want them to come off as dynamic as possible. Keep your vocal inflection energetic. Go hands-free if the caller can still hear you so you can use gestures, which will also translate through your voice. If you have to hold the phone, gesture with one hand. Walk around to "work out" nervous energy, which could help if your voice gets shaky. And by all means, let your face match your words. Again, this will come through in your voice. If you are talking about something serious, don't smile through that part of the discussion. See even more on vocals below.

-Become comfortable with silence.
In my communication courses, we discuss the messages that silence can send. In a phone interview, if you answer a question and then there is no response, it's easy to get nervous. Without the head nod or eye contact from the interviewer, you may feel tempted to fill the silence by rambling. Resist the temptation, let the silence lie for a moment, and then allow your interviewer to initiate the next question. Obviously, if the silence feels too long, it's okay to say, "Have we been disconnected?" just to be sure.

-A few seconds of silence on your end is okay, too.
The flip side of silence is that you do not have to pounce on a question the second it is asked. Taking a very brief pause to gather your thoughts is fine. If you want the silence to be less obvious, but you want the mental thinking time, ask the interviewer to repeat the question.

-Work your vocal tones, your pacing, and your volume.
A little more on vocals here: I always tell my speaking students, "When lights go down, your vocals come up." What this means is that when lights dim for a PowerPoint presentation and the audience is in a darkened room, that audience needs even more of a speaker's inflection (the high/low tones of your voice--think about a newscaster's delivery), projected volume, and overall vocal energy keep them engaged--and possibly awake! These same vocal qualities apply to a phone conversation, particularly one as important as an interview. Let the assertion and intermittent "high tones" in your voice tell the interviewer that you are enthusiastic about the position. Make sure you pace your words conversationally, not scripted or too fast (easy to do when you are nervous!). Finally, speak loud enough (but not so loud that you could bust your potential employer's eardrum), and make sure you are in a quiet space. While it can be painful to listen to yourself, recording a typical response can help you know what you really sound like. Then, you can work on one or two elements of your vocality in day-to-day conversation, before it really counts for that interview.

Now let's talk about your words...

-Ask who will be interviewing you. 
When you receive the call telling you about the phone interview, ask who will be on the call. It may be the HR rep, your future boss, or a committee. Try to research your interviewers on the company website or through LinkedIn. Then, you won't feel like you are speaking entirely to strangers. If you read a biography about the person and their background relates to yours, you might be able to refer to this in your interview. The interviewers will be impressed by your "ahead of the game" research.


-Draw a graphic for yourself.
To go along with the recommendation above, if you are being interviewed by a committee or even more than one person, ask everyone to introduce themselves. Draw a box on a piece of paper (to simulate a conference table) and write down the names, as if you were picturing those people sitting there. Any mental image that helps you feel a little more like you are "in the room" is worthwhile.

-Ask about your allotted time for the call.
I have had phone interviews with five questions and others with 12 questions (My husband faced the same thing when he was laid off in 2008--and he is in the corporate environment). The 12-question interviewer did not tell me that there were that many questions, and I didn't ask. There was less than an hour scheduled for the call! I didn't ask about that either. My responses were too lengthy and before I knew it, the interviewer said, "Your answers are right on, but we must jump to our final two questions.” I wanted to kick myself. If you know how much time you have, and how many questions will be asked, you can monitor your responses and leave enough time for your own questions.

-Practice your responses ahead of time.
After a few phone interviews, you get the standard questions. Just like I tell my speech students to rehearse their oral presentations until they are succinct, crisp, and in line with the given timeframe, I took my own advice and began practicing my interview responses out loud while I was driving, or even in the shower. While you don't want to sound scripted or rehearsed--read:  unnatural or robotic--“talking out” typical answers and editing as necessary can increase your confidence. Then, you can use your energy on the elaborate, unexpectedly challenging questions.

-Let “you” shine through.
Paperwork and a voice can’t represent a multifaceted human being. Weary interviewers who participate in phone call after phone call probably find that answers meld into one giant ball of candidate after a while. So give the interviewer the fabulousness and uniqueness that is "you." Be your creative self. Be your articulate self. Be your witty self. When you "tell" about your experience or an accomplishment, use word pictures, stories, examples that "show" who you are and make you memorable.

-Confirm your time zone.
Are you surprised that this one wasn't listed first? Clearly, I still have nightmares and day-mares over that sad morning of my first telephone interview. After that initial screw-up, I synchronized my watch with any college outside of my time zone, confirming the hour of the interview in their state and in mine. Sometimes I asked twice.

For all its challenges, telephone interviewing offers a few plusses:
-First, when you get that on-site interview, feel quite good that you already impressed the interviewer(s).
-Second, telephone interviews can save you time. A 30-minute phone call may expose what you don’t want in a position, rather than a trek across town... or across the country.
-Finally, familiarity. When a telephone interview prefaces your face-to-face interview, you have "met" someone at the company; you already sort of "know" them. When I had an on-site interview without the phone interview first, I definitely felt the difference in connection, or lack thereof.

So, dust off your suit or nice khakis, chug some water to clear your throat, smile, and charge your cell phone.

Oh, and don't forget about your watch. Make sure you are on the right time zone.

Fabulous masters of phone interviewing, you are ready for excellence!


  1. This is actually really perfect for my Library 110 class. Their mock phone interviews are in the next 2 weeks. Thanks, Chatty Professor! You read my mind!

  2. Hi Ellen, this is very great topic. So someone told me once if you’re scheduled to do phone interview to change few things like:
    -Your voice message and if you have ring tone that the caller can hear it needs to be appropriate,
    -Also watch your facebook and post appropriate picture.
    I would like to hear your thoughts about this.

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for writing and reading!

    -Regarding the voice message, ABSOLUTELY! It should be professional sounding and succinct. I have a cousin looking for work right now and her voice mail starts with something like "Hey, y'all..." No, no, no... not professional. The words and the casualness send a message, right? This thought also goes for leaving a message. I've deleted many an unintentionally rambling message and started over until it was more succinct.

    -Regarding the ring tone, same thing. I think of Steve Carell's character on The Office. Didn't he have something like "My Humps" from the Black Eyed Peas as his ringtone one quarter? Ugh. What message would that send? I don't even want to think about it :-).

    -On the last note, Facebook is very, very new to me. Because I've been an educator for a long time, I've avoided it to keep some separation between my personal and professional life (I did finally give in, but I am cautious about it). Conversely, it makes sense that a job candidate would also want to keep some aspects of his/her personal life private. Don't forget about professional sites, such as LinkedIn, where you can guide potential employers to see the professional you. However, we shouldn't discount that employers are using social media far more to weed out candidates. Here are some more thoughts on that line of thinking:

    Do's and Don'ts of blogging/FB'ing during your job search:

    How Facebook

    Good luck!

  4. Oops! Premature clicking... the second link is similar do's and don'ts regarding FB and MySpace.

  5. Nonverbal communication or shall we say unspoken language is as important as the verbal one. Mastering that would be another trophy for you. I can really relate with you on that phone interview issue. Mine happened when I arrived from my jog . Imagine me breathing like I am being chased by dogs and talking to my interviewer in such tone is really so off. I managed to say my apologies for sounding so and telling her that I just came from my early morning jog. She asked if she can call me some other time but I said it is fine to do the interview. I am glad that I did the interview because I got the job no matter how I sounded when I picked up the receiver. I manage to regain my confidence though in a short while . But yes ,you are right with your views about how to treat phone interviews. I like your article,it has humor and yet it has lots of useful information too.