When it Comes to the Interview,
Don’t Phone it In

phone interview

You might be knocked out of the running before you even realize you are in the race.

Hiring managers and recruiters increasingly are using phone interviews to screen candidates. While chatting on the phone seems easier than putting on your best interview clothes and remembering to keep smiling, phone interviews come with their own set of challenges.

You don’t have the visual cues—when the hiring manager smiles and nods, or glances out the window—that can reveal whether she’s interested in what you are saying or if you are losing her attention. And it is easy to get distracted and speak too casually when you are sitting on your couch or in your kitchen rather than across a desk from someone.

A phone interview is all about the words: the words you say and how you say them. Here’s how to prepare:

Set your goal. A phone interview is generally shorter than an in-person interview, so save the detailed explanations of your experience and ideas for a later meeting. Your goal is simple: to get an in-person interview. Hiring managers are looking for assurance that you are a good candidate, and they usually have a short list of things to check off to make that decision. You want to hit those points as best you can while keeping the conversation at a high level.

Ready your elevator pitch.  Your pitch can be a great opening for a phone conversation. Edit your pitch so it is a appropriate to the specific opportunity–or craft a new one. Practice speaking it until it sounds natural.

Find the right words. Just as you should before you write a cover letter or customize your resume, examine the language in the job description to determine the most important skills, abilities, and experience the company needs. These are your conversation keywords. Write them down and use them in your responses.

Practice short responses. Without those visual cues that can help convey your message and assess your interviewer during an in-person meeting, you have to rely on your voice and delivery. Many people start rambling when speaking on the phone, especially if a question surprises them. Keep your responses brief and direct to be the most effective. Shorter answers also prevent you from blurting out something you shouldn’t have said. You also want to be sure that the interviewer finds out what they are after, so you don’t want to run out the clock babbling.

Practice speaking. Ever feel surprised when you hear your own phone message? Many of us don’t realize how we really sound. You want your voice to convey enthusiasm and intelligence, so really listen. Jot down some likely questions and record yourself responding to them. Notice if you sound monotone or if your voice rises at the end of statements, as if you are asking questions. That common problem can make you sound unsure of yourself.

Perfect your close. You have to take your cue from the interviewer, of course, but have a strong closing statement ready. You may want to ask about the next step in the process. Be sure to repeat your interest in the job and to thank them for the conversation.

Prepare your questions. While this is not the time to ask a lot of questions about the job, have a few broad questions ready. Plan a few questions based on the job description, but keep them high-level. Don’t ask about salary. Just don’t.

Clear your head and your space. Decide where you will sit during the interview and have your notes readily available. Some people suggest speaking in front of a mirror, but I personally find that distracting. Right before the call, pump up your energy—be excited about the conversation, remember you are prepared.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.