July 2, 2013

Hello, This is Dog

Listen, I'm a realist. I know I'm not that great at lots of things. I'm kind of clumsy, I really love cookies, and I have no idea where Rhode Island is. But if there's just one thing I'm absolutely, incredibly, incontrovertibly awesome at, it's phone interviews.

Not to explanabrag too much, but I'm pretty bomb at phone interviews. A 30-minute timeslot almost always runs to 40-45 minutes with me, I make the interviewer laugh, and we usually end up sharing great stories about the job and/or our own experiences. I've very rarely gotten a first-round phone interview and not been bumped up to the next round. I think I did the math once, and my "hit rate" is in the ballpark of 85%.

However, I know a lot of people (especially dudes -- guys, I'm here for you) have lots of trouble with phone interview. Here are five tips to make every phone interview a million percent better.

Phone interview Confidential

Turn off all the distractions.

I know you feel you're at your best when you have Trans-Siberian Orchestra blasting along in the background, but this is not the time. Turn off your music, close out all the programs on your laptop (yes, even if you're on a Mac) and sign out of any chat clients you have open in the background.

The only things you want open on your laptop are: your resume, the job posting, and any emails you've exchanged with the recruiter. You may even wish to have a paper copy of your resume at hand instead.

Minimizing distractions means you will be able to focus all of your attention and energy into the call. Respect the other person; there's six other things they could be doing at that exact second rather than talking to you.Make talking to you worthwhile by respecting their time and giving them 100% of your attention.

As an addendum, keep a tidy/empty desk area as well. No fiddly things to mess with during the interview (a stress ball is ok, a racquetball is not) save for a pad of paper and a pen or two. I often fiddle with a non-clicky pen while in interviews, and I take pretty extensive notes during the conversation. These notes are usually what ends up informing my thank-you note following the call, and they force me to keep my focus on the call..

Use a headset.

Recently, I started going hands-free during phone interviews and it's basically been the best choice I ever made. The primary reason for this is that I feel more comfortable physically during the interview. When I still had my old phone, a seriously old-school flip phone, being on the phone for an extended period of time wasn't arduous. However, now that I'm on a smartphone just like everyone else, I find the phone size and weight cumbersome to hold in my hand for 30-40 minutes.

Going hands free solved a lot of problems. My face no longer got hot from an electronic device being pressed against it. No awkward shoulder fumbling to write and listen and keep the phone at my ear. No possibility of dropping the phone like the klutz I am. No struggling to hear the person (I use an earbud-style headset) even with the volume up as high as it will go. No worries about echoing or the mic picking up on background noise it shouldn't. Lots of my own problems were quickly solved by going hands-free. I can't urge people to do this enough -- it takes all of the pain out of this process and costs you less than $10, if that. Plus you can keep using it beyond phone interviews; I've had my headset for years. It doubles as headphones for when I go running.

Keep water handy.

This might seem like a no-brainer but the handful of times I've forgotten a glass of water while I was interviewing have always proven to be the worst times ever. Keep a glass of cool (but not ice-cold) water handy. You'll want it between questions to sip. Shockingly, speaking for two minutes without interruption can leave you parched. Add to that the fact that you're probably in a high-stress mode and you're likely suffering from dry-mouth. Which is the worst.

I usually keep a glass of water at hand, but far enough away that I won't knock into it while gesticulating. Which brings me to my next point:

Treat this as a "real" interview.

Just because they can't see you doesn't mean you shouldn't play this like it's a legit interview. You can't see them? Big deal. This is this The Big Time. You need to give it 100%. Do all the things you would normally do for an in-person interview -- including gesturing at the wall behind your desk.

Why? Well, it boils down to this: you only have your voice to communicate with in a phone interview. They can't see your expressions, they can't analyze your body language, they can't go by any other indicators as to what you mean except whatever you verbalize at them. But what I find is that people aren't able to emote with their voices alone. We just aren't wired that way as humans. It's why the best voice actors will pantomime scenes in the recording booth, and it's why you should gesture and make all the expressions and just generally be yourself while talking. Your passion, your enthusiasm, and (with a little luck) your point will be made. (Plus, good jokes require a wry voice, and it's hard to be wry with a straight face.)

Beyond that, treating this like a real interview means matching your physical state to your mental state. I'll let y'all in on a secret: I never do phone interviews in pajamas. Even if it's just for the hour or so that I'm in/on/thinking about the call, I will always get dressed and put on "going outside of my apartment" clothes. No, you don't have to bust out the suit every time (though, hey, if that suit makes you feel confident and badass and comfortable, go for it) but don't roll out of bed and do the interview.

Ramp up and decompress.

The time before and after the interview are nerve-wracking to the extreme. If your interview is at 2pm, block out the hour from 1-2pm and the half hour after (3pm-3:30pm) for no disturbances. Use the hour prior to prepare fully for your interview:

  • Finish any research you started.
  • Be finished with lunch/meals/drinks by the time this pre-hour is half over.
  • Take care of any bathroom-related activities, including showering.
  • Tidy up your desk and save/close any programs you have open.
  • Pull up your resume.
  • Grab your glass of water.
  • Change clothes.
  • Charge your phone for the hour leading up to the interview. If possible, let it be plugged in while you talk.
  • If you're in an unfamiliar place, call a friend to test the phone signal and call quality, as well as background noise level and how well/poorly you can hear them.
  • Locate, if you have not already, your headset.
  • Quickly pull up your interviewer's profile on LinkedIn.
  • Jot down any notes about the company and/or questions you'd like to ask.

Five minutes before the interview is scheduled to begin, you should have everything completed and be set to waiting. I often play solitaire in the tense moments leading up to an interview; it's just challenging enough to be distracting but not so engaging as to pull me out of my focus.

The hour before is to give yourself a deadline to begin shutting everything else down except the absolute necessary things for your interview. It's about making sure all the pieces are in order so that you can pick up the call without fumbling or frantically looking for something. More importantly, the hour is about tying up outstanding loose ends so that your entire being is focused on the interview and nothing else.

The half hour after is your decompression time. Use this time to take notes about the interview for your thank-you note, as well as to just generally "come down" from the adrenaline rush you'll inevitably be experiencing. Even an interview that goes sour requires this decompression time; you've just survived a high-stress situation and your body is pumped up full of epinephrine. Your every nerve will be firing madly; you're literally a bolt of lighting at that moment. Take some time to regain your composure. Drink more water. Take notes. Sprawl out on the floor if you have to. Whatever you need to do so long as it brings you back to yourself. This also lets you reflect on the interview in the immediate aftermath and lets you analyze how well/poorly it went and why.

In my decompression time, I often drink two glasses of water, lie back at stare at the ceiling for a while, and take quick notes for a thank-you letter. I do this until my hands stop shaking -- my most common physical manifestation of stress.

Other considerations...

There's a few other tips I'd like to share with you:

  1. Avoid dairy products and sodas in the hour prior to the interview. -- This one sounds ridiculous, I know, but trust the classically trained singer, ok? Dairy causes your throat to increase phlegm and mucus production, meaning you'll be ahem-ing all the way through the call. As for carbonated drinks, well. Nothing is more embarrassing than a loud buuuuuurp in the middle of a call.
  2. Keep facial tissues handy. -- If you've got allergies, they'll be a godsend (just warn the interviewer in advance) and if you don't, well. You never know when the dust motes will get you. If you do have to sneeze, remove the mic as FAR from your mouth/nose as possible. Do not sneeze/cough into your interviewer's ear.
  3. Pitch your voice lower. -- I have a big entry about this that I'll write later, but the short version is that pitching your voice a tone or two lower than usual will help your voice carry nicely across. If you've got that Jim Halpert / James Earl Jones voice already, don't alter your pitch. If you're more Chris Rock or Kristin Chenowith, lowering your pitch a tone or two is a good idea. Practice with Skype or with friends.
  4. Do a practice call a few days beforehand. -- If you're unaccustomed to long-ish phonecalls, call someone who is chatty a few days prior. Have a 40-minute conversation with them. Consider it a warm-up. Speaking of....
  5. Sing along to the radio for 10 minutes in the hour before the call. -- Warming up your voice is a guaranteed way to make sure you don't overextend it when you need it. Singing along to the radio (terrestrial or Pandora or otherwise) will help make sure your voice doesn't crack in the middle of an important anecdote. Plus it loosens you up a bit. I may or may not have danced around my apartment singing along to Justin Timberlake in my one hour of prep time.
  6. Smile. -- It sounds like a cliche, but it really does come through when you talk.

I am not going to pretend that these tips will make you the phone interview whisperer the way I am. But they will help a lot. A big part of a phone interview is simply being able to project your personality through telephone wires. That part is a bit more art than skill (though it can be taught) and so is harder to pin down. However, I will say this much: being genuine comes across most strongly, regardless of interview medium or setting. Be honest, be forthcoming, be yourself, and demonstrate preparedness. Together, theose four should yield a pretty nice payoff.


  1. Ahhh - I always loved Pandemic II - "Shut Down EVERYTHING!!!"


    1. HUGS! That quickie comic is basically my fave. I barely resisted using the .gif version instead! :D

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