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How to Ace a Telephone Job Interview

Prepare like it’s in-person — and don’t forget to smile

spinner image How to Ace A Telephone Interview
A good performance in a telephone interview is often the first step to a successful job search.

The phone interview has rapidly become a first step in the job-hunting dance.

Hiring managers and recruiters find it’s a convenient way to winnow down a swell of online resumes. Plus, it saves them time and travel expenses for candidates who appear promising on paper, but — they think — may not turn out to be finalist material. It’s your chance to prove them wrong.

The interviews tend to be short — 20 to 30 minutes — and straightforward. The person at the other end of the line is typically trying to get a read on your communication skills, background and why you’re interested in the position.

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There are, of course, drawbacks for you: You miss out on the face-to-face contact that allows you to gauge the office vibe, assess a handshake and make eye contact — subtle clues as to whether it’s a place where you’d like to work.

Moreover, a phone conversation can be awkward at times. For instance, without visual body language signals it’s tough to tell if someone is done talking or just pausing. One woman I spoke with recently bemoaned that her phone interviewer kept moving on to the next question before she had finished her answer. It seems the interviewer didn’t get that the woman was simply pausing to gather her thoughts to emphasize a point.

Whether you make it past this first sorting for a job may depend on what you do before, during and following a phone interview. Here are tips to improve your performance.

Do a pre-game prep. Shortly before the phone rings, review the job description and the precise set of skills the employer is seeking so that they’re fresh in your mind. A quick Google search on the interviewer and a peek at the person’s LinkedIn profile may help you make a personal connection.

Prepare a list of questions that you want to ask about the position and the company. This is a job interview plain and simple, after all, so get ready as you would if you were going into the workplace for the interview.

Dress as if it’s in-person. Even though the caller can’t see you, this will make you feel prepared and professional.

Use a landline. “You’re breaking up.” You don’t want to say or hear those words. Avoid spotty cell and internet phone connections. A landline removes technical glitches that may unnerve you during the interview.

Pick a quiet location. Find a comfortable place without distractions from people, pets, music and street noise. If you’re home, inform everyone that you’re going to be on a very important phone call and are not to be disturbed.

Turn off other phones and mute the speakers on your computer. Make sure nothing is ringing or dinging in the background. Turn call-waiting off too, so your conversation isn’t beeped into.

Lay out a copy of your resume and the job description. You may need to refer to details from these documents during the call, but don’t read them off, because that can sound stiff.

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Have pen and paper handy. They’re for jotting down notes during the conversation, if that helps you keep track of what’s being said. However, if note-taking interferes with your ability to listen and respond, keep it to a minimum. You should still have paper and pen handy. You may need to write down a phone number or name you’re given.

Have a drink nearby. Not the alcoholic type, of course. A glass of water is best, or a cup of coffee or tea if you’re looking for a little caffeine bump. Keeping your whistle wet helps you steer clear of throat clearing, which can ruin the flow of conversation. And if, just before the phone rings, you haven’t said anything in a while, warm up your voice.

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Be ready to go 10 minutes ahead of time. The call may come early, and you don’t want to sound hurried

Answer professionally. When you answer the phone, greet the caller with something like, “Hi, this is [name].” If you know who’s calling (from Caller ID), consider following up with “Is this [name]?” Don’t try to pretend that  you don’t know who’s calling. That can sound phony.

Smile. Believe it or not, interviewers can hear a smile over the phone. You’ll sound upbeat and convey a sense that you’re happy to have the opportunity to discuss the opening. Smile especially when you answer the phone and greet the caller, when you talk about your work and what you’re passionate about, and when you ask questions about the company. Put a mirror in front of yourself so you can make sure you’re smiling.

Pay attention to your posture. Stand or sit up straight during the call. You might prefer to stand. That can make your voice sound stronger and more energetic. You might even move a bit while the interviewer is talking to keep the blood flowing.

Listen carefully before you speak. Pause a tiny bit before you answer, to gather your thoughts. Then talk. Try to answer each question in two minutes or less. Otherwise, your interviewer may tune out. Because you can’t see the person, it’s tempting to fill in any pauses in the conversation, but rein it in. Be patient.

Enunciate your words and don’t speak too fast. Projecting your voice distinctly and enthusiastically is fundamental. And remember, the questions are mostly similar to the ones tossed your way during in-person interviews. These might include the following: Why does the job appeal to you? When could you start, if you were hired?  And, if it’s a recruiter, what’s your expected salary range?

Avoid fillers such as “like,” “you know” and “um.” Use precise language to communicate your thoughts. Remind yourself that short pauses are acceptable and much preferred over fillers, which can make you sound less sophisticated.

But keep those pauses short. One way to avoid the miscues mentioned earlier is to set up your responses. For example, say, "I have three thoughts on that," which indicates to the interviewer to wait for you to run through all three, even with pauses.

End on an up note. If you really want the job, finish your conversation by saying, “Thanks for the call. I’m very interested in what we’ve discussed today and would appreciate the opportunity to meet you in person. What’s the next step?” Think of this as your call to action.

Send a thank-you note. A few hours after the interview, send a brief email. Reiterate your heartfelt interest in the employer, ability to do the job and desire to move to the next stage of the process.

One caveat: If you receive a call from a recruiter or hiring manager that was not previously set up, it’s a good idea to either let the call go to your answering machine and return it when you’re prepared, or thank the interviewer for the call and ask if you can schedule a time when you can speak without interruption.

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Then start at the top of this list and get prepared.

Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is the author of What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond and  Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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Join AARP today for $16 per year. Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.