Why Phone Interviews Are So Hard—and How to Ace Them Anyway
I’ve never liked phone interviewing. Yes—I’m a card-carrying member of a club that probably includes almost everyone—but I’ve found phone interviews more difficult than, say, public speaking, advocating for my ideas in the workplace, or negotiating with my landlord. I’m actually relatively comfortable in situations that require a degree of confidence and assertiveness, so I haven’t ever had much trouble with in-person interviews. I’ve just found that I tend to falter specifically in a phone interview setting.
Unfortunately, phone interviewing is an essential skill. These days, a phone interview is often a non-negotiable prerequisite to an in-person interview. As phone interview guru Paul Bailo will tell you, all jobs start with a phone call. I’m going to have to keep doing it, and I’m going to have to be less terrible at it.
With that in mind, I recently resolved to discover exactly why phone interviewing is not my friend (“kryptonite” seemed overly self-important), and find out how I can make strides towards conquering it.
Can You Tell Me a Little Bit About Yourself?
I can identify the specific event in which I realized I was an ineffective phone interviewer. I was in the middle of a phone screen with a recruiter from a well-known tech company, and things were rumbling along relatively smoothly. The phone screen is often the lowest hurdle in the process (heck, some companies will roll out a metaphorical springboard to ensure your safe passage), and you often have to say something egregiously dubious to get screened out.
In this particular case, the problem was what I didn’t say. Halfway through the call, the recruiter lobbed me an easy question, asking me to elaborate on a favorite project in a previous job. All of a sudden, I drew a blank. I was so concerned with coming up with my absolute favorite project that reflected my rare, one-of-a-kind, get-’em-while-you-still-can superpowers that I couldn’t think of any projects I had worked on over the past year.
As the silence became less of a thinking pause and more of a foreboding indicator that my IQ had suddenly seeped out my ears, I forgot everything. I couldn’t remember what I had and hadn’t already mentioned, I couldn’t remember which position I was interviewing for, I couldn’t even remember my penultimate job. The silence grew longer and longer, and the longer it took for me to muster up the courage to ask for a moment to think, the more difficult it was to start mustering.
I was no longer thinking about the question. I was thinking about the blank. The silence on my end of the line was louder than anything else I had said in the interview.
I eventually (this is not an exaggeration—my response was, by the denotation of the word, eventual) forced a laugh, an apology, and some feeble enthusiasm about a run-of-the-mill project. The rest of the interview limped along. All was lost. In every subsequent response, I wasn’t thinking about the company, or connecting with the interviewer, or convincing her why I would make and/or save her company money. I was thinking about the blank.
Blanking and other malarkey aside, it was this interview that forced me to confront my proclivity to stumble during phone interviews. The problem wasn’t due to the actual content of the interview, as this wasn’t a matter of softballs and curveballs. The problem stemmed from the nature of the experience. Something about the concept of being interviewed over the phone threw me.
I know this because of how I felt before all of my phone interviews. An impending sense of doom (kidding—or am I?) coupled with an intense nervousness would leave my heart pounding and my voice an octave higher than normal when I picked up the phone.
I found this very curious. As a usually calm, cool, and collected cucumber (especially considering my amicable relationship with in-person interviews), my consistently intense physiological response to having to interview over the phone was hindering my ability to interview well. Upon further research (read: perusing the internet), I found that the prospect of a phone interview activated my sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is better known as the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response includes—among other things—pupil dilation, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure, and while I haven’t ever attempted a pre-phone-interview eyeball evaluation, I definitely felt these effects before an interview. The overall effect of SNS activation is to prepare the organism (in this case, me) for imminent danger. Every time I was anxiously watching the minutes tick by waiting for my phone to ring, I was just as prepared to interview as I was to flee from a hangry bear.
I’m going to get a little bit fluffy with my cause-and-effect analysis here. I think there are a number of ways in which a phone interview differs from an in-person interview, and that the cumulative stress brought on by these phone-specific factors was enough to trigger my SNS response (and my subsequent poor performance).
55, 38, 7
The defining feature separating phone interviews from their in-person brethren is obvious: on the phone, you can’t see who you’re dealing with. You miss out on subtle (and even not-so-subtle) nonverbal cues that would otherwise inform the length, depth, and tone of your answers. I think the ability to see and interact with my interviewer, and accordingly adjust my responses, has a huge impact on my own interviewing abilities.
When it comes to body language and nonverbal communication, 55, 38, and 7 are numerical celebrities. They represent the widely accepted belief that 55% of communication is transmitted through body language, 38% through tone of voice, and 7% through the actual words spoken, fittingly and colloquially known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule. This equation is attributed to research published by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, who concluded that the receiver trusts the predominant form of communication, tone, and gestures, rather than the literal meaning of the words.
While the actual numerical distribution of relative verbal and nonverbal impact is often critiqued, the idea remains relevant. Nonverbal communication, whether through facial expressions, gestures, body movement, posture, or eye contact, has a substantial impact on the conversation.
You Had Me at Hello
It’s tough to pitch your potential value to an organization over the course of a short phone call. It’s even more difficult to do so when you can’t use nonverbal feedback to modify your approach and tone. Your ability to connect with the interviewer, one of the most important factors as to whether you’ll move forward with a particular company, often hinges on nonverbal communication. I’ve found that the more I can connect with and establish common ground with an interviewer, the more comfortable I am with asserting my strengths, allowing me to articulate why I might be valuable to the company in question.
Thus, in the tragic absence of nonverbal cues, I have concocted a contingency plan. Here are the four tips that I have found to be most effective in conquering phone interviews:
1. Nail the Greeting
The beginning of conversation sets the tone for the entire interview. In fact, many people will say that the outcome of the interview actually hinges on the first 15 seconds. Have your opening lines on autopilot by the time you pick up the phone, using them to simultaneously confirm the interview and to move the conversation forward.
Brent Peterson calls this snazzy duo the “Professional Greeting” and “Appointment Confirmation.” As such, picking up the phone with a simple “Hello?” is often the worst way to go. The interviewer has to ascertain whether you’re really you, and then figure out how to segue into the interview, which can quickly turn awkward.
Instead, make good use of your opening lines:
- “Hello, this is [your name].”
- “Hi [you], this is [interviewer] calling from [company].”
- “Hi [interviewer]. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.”
You have now efficiently confirmed that yes, this is the target interviewee speaking; yes, you remembered and anticipated the interview; and no, you aren’t driving on the freeway. The interviewer will take it from there.
While I’m skeptical that the first 15 seconds will actually make or break the entire interview, I do think that starting off on the right foot has a positive effect on the flow of the rest of the conversation.
2. Hit a Power Pose
Hormones have a significant impact on your confidence. Body language is a physical cue that informs the level of certain hormones. For instance, adopting a “high power” position, or one that is open and relaxed, can actually increase testosterone, decrease cortisol, and magically make you feel more confident and less stressed.
I like to couple a few pre-interview power poses with some good ol’ box breathing, which is another technique that relieves stress through regulating the autonomic nervous system, effectively combating the fight-or-flight response.
To box breathe, inhale for four seconds, pause for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, pause for four seconds, and then repeat the cycle. A few solid box breaths really will prepare you to think clearly and speak calmly and confidently.
3. Use Verbal Cues
One way to overcome a dearth of nonverbal communication on the phone is to use strong, recognizable verbal cues. When you’re in the midst of crushing interview questions, you’ll usually be speaking for a longer span of time.
Make it easy for the interviewer to jump back in when you’ve finished your response. Instead of trailing off with a “…so yeah…”, make it clear that you’ve finished responding to that particular question. Something clear and authoritative will do the trick: “And that was how I resolved Problem X.”
As you get further into the interview, the conversation will hopefully flow along naturally, but it never hurts to be clear and concise with your language and verbal cues.
4. Get on the Phone More Often
I’ve found that an effective way to prepare for a phone interview is to simply get on the phone more often in the days leading up to it. Try picking up the phone instead of resolving something over email. Call your friends to negotiate or debate something. Better yet, find reasons to talk on the phone to people you don’t know as well. Log phone banter minutes whenever you can.
There’s something about the cadence and rhythm of having a phone conversation that falls into the practice-makes-perfect paradigm. It sounds silly—everyone knows how to talk on the phone, right?—but I think that the more you speak on the phone, the more comfortable you will be speaking authoritatively without nonverbal cues, and as a whole, during the dreaded Phone Interview.