Five ways to do better in phone interviews


The last phone interview I did was for my job at the Boston Globe. And let me just confess that I wasn’t that great in the interview, and I stressed a lot afterwards about not getting the job. But, of course, I did get the job, which I think might be evidence that I write so much about career advice that I am becoming way too hard on myself.

At any rate, I have done tons of phone interviews—on both sides of the hiring equation—so when Sia asked me to write a post on how to do a phone interview, I was surprised that I hadn’t written one already. (Although I have written a bunch about interviews.)

So, here are five tips for doing well in a phone interview:

1. Attend to your surroundings.
If you have an interview scheduled, take precautions beforehand to get in a good spot physically.

Don’t take the interview when you are at your desk and can’t talk freely. Don’t take the call when there is too much noise in the background. And don’t walk from one place to another because the breathlessness that comes from walking and talking at the same time subconsciously conveys lack of authority to someone who doesn’t know you.

If you did not schedule it beforehand, feel free to ask the interviewer if you can call back at a better time. You will not sound disinterested, but rather, you will sound concerned for managing your life by organizing your commitments.

2. Dress for the part.
Consider getting dressed up for your interview, even though no one will see you.

The emails you write to a hiring manager are different than your emails to your friends. You can’t talk to an interviewer the same way you talk with your friends. You know this, but the shift is difficult without practice. And if you are not practiced at talking about business on the phone, it’s hard to get into business mode for the call.

A way to compensate for this is to dress for an interview even though the interviewer can’t see you. In the 90s when people debated the virtues of dumping suits at the workplace in favor of business casual, there was a fair amount of research to show that people took their work more seriously when they were in a suit. That makes sense. Girls act more like a princess when they’re in a prom dress than when they’re in running shorts, and the same happens with people in work clothes.

I’m not saying you should wear a suit all the time. I’m saying that when there’s a risk of sounding too casual or unprofessional on the phone, dressing up a little can actually change how you sound.

3. Stand up.
No kidding. You’ll sound more self confident and dynamic if you stand while you speak than if you sit. Walking around a bit, but not too much, also keeps the call going smoothly. If your body is confined, your speech sounds different than if you have run of the room. It’s one reason that the best speakers walk around instead of standing in one place at the podium.

Using hand gestures is very natural for talking, so allow yourself to use them, even though you’re on the phone. You don’t have to force it. They will just come, as long as your hands are free. And you want to sound natural on the phone because authentic is more likeable. So walking around a room with a headset will actually give you the freedom to be more yourself on the call.

4. Prepare for the most obvious questions.
A resume is to get someone to pay attention to you. An in-person interview is to see if people like you. Somewhere in between those two events, people need to make sure you are qualified and you don’t have any huge red flags. So in a phone interview you can expect people to focus on those two concerns.

You will probably get questions asking you to show that you actually have the skills to accomplish the goals for the open position. Be prepared to give organized, rehearsed examples of how you have performed at work in the past in order to show your skill set.

Also, be ready for a question about the most obvious problem on your resume—often frequent job changes or big gaps in work. These are answers you should practice. Even if your answer isn’t great, a good delivery can make the difference between getting through a phone screen or not.

5. Don’t forget to close.
An interview is about selling yourself, and the best salespeople are closers. Your goal for a phone interview is to get an in-person interview. So don’t get off the phone until you have made some efforts to get to that step. Ask what the process is for deciding who to interview face-to-face. Ask for decision-making timelines, and try to find out who is making the decisions. Don’t barrage the interviewer with questions in this regard, but the more information you have, the more able you will be to get yourself to the next step.

And don’t forget a key component of a successful close—even for a phone interview–is a thank you note to followup.

Finally, after you get done with a phone interview, send out a few more resumes, or go fill out a few more job applications. Hopefully, you won’t need to keep hunting because the phone interview will clinch the job. But it will make you crazy to just sit and wait for the interviewer to take action. If you keep job hunting you are taking action yourself which will make you feel more in control over your situation.

The best way to ace an interview is to be interviewing for your dream job. It’s so easy to sell yourself when you are a perfect fit for a job you’re dying to have. But it’s really hard to identify what that dream job is. And then, of course, you need a path to get to that job. Here’s a course helps you identify the best job for you and shows you how to get it: Get Your Dream Job Now!

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  1. Lee
    Lee says:

    >>Your goal for a phone interview is to get an
    >>in-person interview.

    I hope that’s not the sole purpose people use for phone interviews.

    Remember interviewing is a 2-way street. One of your goals for a phone interview should be to determine whether or not you want to work for the company in question. Ideally this is a company you have already researched and believe you would like to work at, and the phone interview will be used to establish the validity of your beliefs. Only if you believe there’s a match should you try to “close”.

    * * * * * *

    All good points, if the person doing the phone interview is the person you’d be working for. Often, though, the phone screen is done by someone else. So as long as you’ve done your research on the company and you like it, you should probably still go in for a face-to-face interview and meet the hiring manager. Ask you questions of that person.


  2. Prashant
    Prashant says:

    Here’s what I’ve done in the past – (should I not be writing it here – to ‘maintain a clean netprint’)?

    First, I ensure that I am taking phone interviews from home. For as many topics/questions as possible (and which are more commonly asked), I prepare bullet point printouts. I clear the floor, and sit in the middle. Then, I place all these prints all around me. Now, if a question related to any of these is asked, and I don’t remember it – it’s right in front of my eyes.

    Mean? Cheating? Maybe. But it works.

    Of course, this works best for technical interviews. Additionally, if you don’t know the concepts behind the bullet points, it can easily blow up in your face – the interviewer will know that you are “reading off a paper”. So it’s best to use these cheat sheets just as memory triggers/refreshers.

    * * * * *
    This seems like fair game to me, and good advice as well. Like thinking of the phone interview as an open-book test.

    However at some point, you need to be prepared to go to a face-to-face interview, and then you’ll need to have the stuff memorized.


  3. Emile
    Emile says:

    As someone who got his first job via a phone interview (and, subsequently, did a fair amount of interviewing over the phone for that first firm), I would add two points:

    1. Smile when you dial. It is amazing how much smiling can influence the tone that is projected over the phone lines. When you smile, the person at the other end can hear it. This is a subtle, but critical, component of a phone interaction where the only cues available to the interviewer are auditory.

    2. Give concise and well-structured answers/responses to interviewers (addition to Penelope’s point #4). This is true for in-person interviews, but even more important for phone interviews. For an interviewer, not many things are worse than a long-winded job candidate over the phone. If the interviewer is interested in more detail, he/she will ask. Of course, there are always exceptions, which is where the well-structured part comes in–it shows analytics and direction in your story. (i.e. “top three things I learned in this experience…” or “this was good for two reasons…”)

    * * * * *

    Yes. Two more good pieces of advice. Thanks for adding these, Emile.

  4. KV
    KV says:

    Having gone through a phone interview just last week, I’m still running the tape in my head to figure out what I could have done better.

    The biggest challenge in a phone conversation is conveying the messages without any non-verbal cues. Majority of our conversation is done non-verbally, so not being able to use it in an interview leaves a lot of ground to cover. All the steps mentioned in the post are important becuase a lot more organization is needed to convey the same message without visual verification and confirmations.

    My suggestion would be to pay extra attention to the sounds that might convey more emotion, both when you are talking and when you are listening. Any change in tone, or volume, has a lot more significance in a phone interview.

    There’s also a tendency to rush during a phone interview becuase the situation is not as personal as an in person interview. Use the “tell me about yourself” question to calm your nerves, use some ice breakers, and make it a conversation instead of 20 questions game that’s timed like a chess game.

    And of course, at the end, run the tapes in your head.

  5. Barb
    Barb says:

    Walking around while speaking is indeed an effective way. I think it’s a way of releasing some of our feelings of fear. It’s almost the same with hand gestures.

  6. David Perry
    David Perry says:

    Penelope, great ideas, let me add a few of my own rules to get more out of your telephone interview:

    Rule #1, ask the interviewer what the sequence of events is for the call this way you’ll understand what they’re looking for.

    Rule #2, ask when you’ll be able to ask a few questions of your own this way if they say you won’t you can decide to not take the call [there’s real power in doing that].

    Rule #3, tape your resume to the wall in front of you so it’s at eye level when you’re talking this way you can follow along with the interviewer as they dissect your work history. {Penelope is spot on when she tells you to stand. It takes pressure off your diaphragm and gives your voice more power].

    Rule #4, tape your t-bar analysis next to your resume on the wall [that’s a you-need-I’ve-got dissection of the job ad.] This way you can easily relate your experience to their needs without having to appear to think about it.

    Rule #5, tape the call if you can. The sales rep at Radio shack can sell you the technology for about $30 this way you can dissect your call afterwards and help prepare yourself for the next one.

    – David Perry
    co-author guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters

    PS. Anyone who forgets to send a “thank you note” especially after Penelope pointed out the obvious will not get the offer. Thank You notes show employers you can complete a project. It’s the last step in a job hunt project — NOT a nice to do.

  7. Adam Auden
    Adam Auden says:

    Are thankyou notes really a big thing in the US for interviewing? I think if anyone in the UK ever received such a thing the candidate in question would be written off as completely insincere.

    If you want to show you’re keen surely a follow-up call to the person who interviewed you a couple of days later would be preferable?

  8. Sia
    Sia says:

    I wanted to add some of the problems that I had during different telephone interviews, might become handy someday

    1- Speak up, it is a sign of confidence, you don’t get to shake hands or look into their eyes, the only thing that represents you is your voice, so speak up, but don’t speak too fast, you don’t want to look nervous (I read it in that book)

    2-turn off your call waiting function on your cellphone not to get distracted by the friends

    3- If you are doing that at home, ask someone to watch the door or put a sign on the door “Don’t knock on this door, will be back in 2 hours”
    you don’t want to be distracted by an evangelist :)

    4- if your interview is like two person interviewing you in person and
    there is another one on the phone, don’t stare at the phone, it is not good

    5- at the very first moment, learn which voice is which, sometimes with similar voices it is hard to recognize the voices and it causes problems

    6- there is a silence duration between when you are answering the
    question and when they ask the next question, be patient and don’t talk too much during that time, they are making notes :)


  9. Art Mealing
    Art Mealing says:

    David Perry point out the same issue that I have. A “thank you note” seems to me a very particular usage on US hiring. The few other countries that I’ve seen (America, Europe), it’s not common.

  10. MikeB
    MikeB says:

    My daughter’s college placement office advised their students to sit with a mirror visible, and to make sure to be smiling. It makes the voice sound more friendly. Makes sense to me.

  11. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Great ideas, although I don’t think that getting dressed up will not be as effective for me. I would rather go with comfortable clothes. I think that people can’t concentrate if there are things like neck tie and high hills that disturbs them.

  12. Glenn Mandelkern
    Glenn Mandelkern says:

    When it comes to “Thank You Letters,” (TYL) your mileage may vary, especially in the US.

    I know some who’ve gotten hired, never having written a TYL. They think a TYL represents desperation. Another set, however, view TYL’s as great displays of professional courtesy and interest in the company, its people and the job.

    It can also make a difference how the TYL is written. There’s a difference between writing an unrevealing TYL done out of rote which may be best to not send versus a TYL that really makes a connection.

    Even so, I’ve seen reactions vary. I’ve seen recipients respond joyfully, how good it is that someone wants to join their firm. I’ve also seen others ask, “I’ve never had to write something like this. Why is this guy trying so hard?”

    One person told me a key to a good life is embracing “detachment.” If you believe your target merits a TYL, write it with your best intention, then detach, let it go. After that, building on this topic of “phone interview,” it’s their call.

  13. Dave
    Dave says:

    I also want to be comfrotable especially in situations like these. Since nobody can see you, it’s better to be comfortable than to be annoyed by your formal clothes.

    Like what Ellen said, people’s performace is affected if not comfortable.

    • Sonny
      Sonny says:

      I think this is a bit harsh, and frankly, stupid. This person was trying to be courteous and not assume you remember them. Obviously the job they were applying for did not require any customer relations because this is the exact type of person I would want to deal with my customers. Thoughtful, polite, and great follow through. I wish I knew your business because I would never want to be a customer to someon who treats potential employees badly. BAD MANNERS DAVE

  14. Gil
    Gil says:

    I absolutely disagree with the thank-you note, especially if sent by snail mail. These are annoying – you saying thanks for the time doesn’t make me want to ignore your downsides, it’s simply one more piece of spam I must delete and wasted time reading. I have spoken with our other hiring managers about this and they agree.

    One interesting item was a thank-you via snail mail, complete with a picture of the person who interviewed. This was downright creepy, went straight into the trash, and cancelled any chance the candidate might have had.

  15. Mercy
    Mercy says:

    I recently had a phone interview and I am stressing about it constantly. I think phone interviews are hard and place you at a disadvantage because you miss out on the physical indications of whether things are going well or not. I think I laughed way too much and became too comfortable with the interviewer. Not sure how this will turn out.

  16. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I have enjoyed all of the notes so far. I am about to possibly interview for a position that I may not be “qualified” for. So, I’ve skowered this site for advice and have enjoyed reading. I completed the phone interview a week ago and, afterwards, I sent a very short emailed thank you that was specific to the call. May sound like I was kissing up but, I was AND I was grateful for her time. There were many applicants..I don’t know if I was one of many or only one of a handful that they decided to call. I think managers should allow people to show their gratefulness..that, alone, is a gift. They don’t have to respond.

  17. Mark Frank
    Mark Frank says:

    Make sure to thank the initial contact. If you're calling the office for the interview make a complete introduction to the person answering the phone. I know as one who has conducted many phone interviews that a switchboard operators' comments about how nice someone was when calling in sends a good signal.
    It also helps if follow-up calls are needed to that particular office (write down the persons name who answers). Since oftentimes the person doing the phone interview is someone different than the initial contact stay in touch with the initial contact after the call.

  18. Joe
    Joe says:

    If you studied all of Penelope’s tips and every other “expert”, you would be a neurotic wreck. I have gotten jobs while I was on the phone naked. Just train yourself to think about what your saying and what the person on the other end will be hearing. Realize HR relies on protocol too much because they are usually not studied in what you do so they do poorly identifying a qualified candidates. That’s why they over emphasize strong handshakes, eye contact, ect. So know OF their game to placate what they been programed to understand or else you may be passed over. Cater your comments to the person your are talking to. Also, writing thank you letters is a matter of opinion. Unlike the Dave’s comments above, I will tell you that I have worked in several states (because on my profession) and this wont hurt if concise and short. It can only help you at a good company. If your interviewing for a job with a guy like Dave, move on. I only see these types of answers from people who work in high turnover environments where a person actually is put off by any attempts at friendly human contact. The reason is that (s)he doesnt want to feel remorse when he treats you like dirt; This may also be a sign of how he has been treated and may not know how to reward and treat employees well. Further, his comments about a picture being “creepy” shows his lack of experience. In many countries a curriculum vitae is required over a resume and a picture is often used. Sometimes people will mention who their parents surname, religion and ethnicity! Dave also doesnt understand that many businesses use “snail mail” regularly, I hear this from people in the IT world too much, and some of the most experienced (read seasoned citizens and “rainmakers”) prefer a hard copy layout over staring at a screen all day.

  19. 619-473-8659
    619-473-8659 says:

    Can anyone suggest how to start off a follow up call to the interviewe, or what should or shouldn’t be said?

  20. Eli Stone
    Eli Stone says:

    Very nice advice Penelope!

    I hope to do better on my next interview, the past five I’ve bombed! I’ve been practicing a lot and reading your advice and other sites like Mock Questions, so hopefully that will help!!

  21. Brad
    Brad says:

    I think that phone interviews can carry the same weight as regular in person interviews. The thing with the phone interviews is that can really drag out. If they are interested in you might end up talking to more than few people before you get the job or not. Whereas with in person interviews one or two meetings should do it.

  22. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    It seems that some commenting here have missed a most obvious item that the posting left out. You (the interviewee) must know your subject matter in addition to following Miss Penelope’s advice or you may very well “bomb” in an interview. It’s OK to admit you don’t know something – especially if you are a novice – if you immediately follow that admission with a promise to do your best to educate yourself. I’ve interviewed many people over the years and I’ve learned that I much prefer (and will hire) the person who is willing to learn vs. a person who aleady has the skill (or knowledge) in question but is terrible to work with.

  23. Math
    Math says:

    I have a phone interview with a university in a couple weeks and I’m trying to prepare as much as I can beforehand. Thanks for the tips; I think they will help a lot.

  24. Paul
    Paul says:

    Is it appropriate to send a Thank You letter via email after a phone interview? I know it’s more formal to send a written Thank You letter via snail mail, but in this day age, is an email acceptable?



  25. esoy1989
    esoy1989 says:

    Thanks for the informative post. Now i know how to make a good conversation in the phone calls. I’m not that good to speak over the phone, but now I have my knowledge in doing it.

  26. joey baron
    joey baron says:

    Where are the 20 questions? All I see is 20 suggestions…..your ad is false and misleading

  27. Peter
    Peter says:

    short but to the point. I see that people argue the part about the “dress up” part. I may sound stupid but I feel more confident when I’m dressed up nicely, so I can see why she points that out

  28. Angie
    Angie says:

    Thanks, Penelope, for your words of wisdom! I followed your advice to a “tee” and completed a successful phone interview. :-) Thank you again & God bless!

  29. dududukkkkkkk
    dududukkkkkkk says:

    Five ways to do better in phone interviews | Penelope Trunk Blog Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

  30. Alethea
    Alethea says:

    Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs?

    I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have
    you share some stories/information. I know my audience would enjoy your work.
    If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an email.

  31. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Hey Penelope,
    Great advice on the phone interviews. I’ve been reading this stuff all day, prepping for my big call tomorrow moring. I found your perspective very unique and insightful. That whole dressing for the phone interview, Wow! Where did you come up with that. I already feel empowered just knowing I will have a nice outfit on. And the standing bit, again where did you think of that? Amazing. Love, Love these great ideas for a successful phone interview. Please keep up the good work. Great JOB, you go Girl!

  32. lehigh valley web design
    lehigh valley web design says:

    Hi! I know this is somewhat off-topic however
    I needed to ask. Does operating a well-established website such as yours take a massive amount work?

    I am completely new to operating a blog but I
    do write in my diary every day. I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online. Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendations or tips for new aspiring blog owners. Thankyou!

  33. Salah
    Salah says:

    Ladies and Gent tomrrw i have a phone interview for a job, i am keen it is not that difficulty, if experince is available,anyway my challenge is to be the managerand run the office of this company in my region.

    pls wish me luck

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  1. says:

    Five ways to do better in phone interview

    File under useful. Five tips for doing well in a phone interview from Brazen Carrerist .

    1. Attend to your surroundings.

    If you have an interview scheduled, take precautions beforehand to get in a good spot physically.

    Don’t take the interview wh…

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