How to Do Well in a Telephone Interview

Telephone, originally uploaded to Flickr by plenty.r.Phone interviews can be just as trying as an in-person interview — but how do you sound and act your best over the telephone?  Reader J just had her first phone interview, and wonders if she can do better:

I had my first telephone interview last week (previously, I’ve interviewed for summer positions, and taken part I in OCIs and other much more structured hiring processes and only had in-person interviews) and I wasn’t sure what to expect and how to prepare. I looked through your posts on interviewing, but didn’t find anything dedicated to talking about telephone interviews. I think it might be a useful topic to discuss (and get the hive’s input on) – in particular, how to know what kind of telephone interview to expect (the check-she’s-not-crazy with a low-level recruiter/firm HR person, the check-she’s-qualified with higher-level recruiter/firm hiring committee person, and the we-don’t-want-to-fly-you-across-the-country-for-an-in-person-interview-yet with the employer), how to prepare for different telephone interviews, and any telephone interview etiquette or tips.

Interesting! I think more and more companies are doing phone interviews as an initial step, so we should definitely talk about them.  (We have talked about Skype interviews, but those makeup tips seem a bit . . . irrelevant for a phone interview.)  Here are my thoughts, but I’m curious what the readers have to say. (Pictured: Telephone, originally uploaded to Flickr by plenty.r.)

  • Treat this as a “gatekeeper” interview.  Reader J seems to want to suss out how important the person on the other end of the phone is, perhaps so she knows how seriously to take the call.  Here’s my suggestion:  it doesn’t matter who’s at the other end of the phone.  Whoever it is, they’re the one who says “yes, let’s bring her in for Round 2.”  So plan to bring your full game, and act as if you’re talking to the CEO, owner, BigWig partner, or whoever else.  If you work in a niche with special jargon, go ahead and use the jargon — I think you can presume that the interviewer will be familiar with it, and if not, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.  Similarly, you may have specific questions of the company to see if you even want to get to Round 2 — questions about lifestyle, benefits, the job position, etc.  If anything is a dealbreaker for you, ask it on this call; if the interviewer can’t answer it ask for a follow-up call.
  • Clear your calendar, and go to a very quiet place.  If you’re not specifically told how much time to expect, I would clear 60 or 90 minutes of your time.  Go to a very quiet place — your office, a conference room, your home.
  • Lower your voice.  This may be just my personal cross to bear, but I have a fairly high-pitched, breathy voice over the phone unless I’m consciously thinking to myself, “lower your voice.”  (I’m that person who records my outgoing voice message 15 times trying to get the pitch and the message correctly.)
  • Smile.  Nope, they can’t see you — but I guarantee they’ll hear it in your voice.
  • Clear your desk and have your resume and a clear notepad in front of you.  I like to take notes when I’m on an important phone call — primarily just to help me focus and to keep me from fiddling on the computer.  Some people do advise standing for telephone interviews.
  • Know everything.  Know your resume and any forgettable facts from your work history (metrics, jargon, dates, promotions, etc.).  Know the job listing.  Know the company.  If you can, know the interviewer (Google as soon as you find out their name, or go to their page on the company website).

Readers, what are your best tips for a phone interview?  Have you had more of them in recent years?



  1. To add to Kat’s tips (which are great), use a landline for the interview if at all possible. Next best thing is to go somewhere where you have perfect coverage for your phone.

    If your cell phone is breaking up it will sound unprofessional during the interview. I know because I’ve personally heard interviewers ding interviewees that had a phone interview with bad phone reception.

    If you are still in school then your career services office should have quiet rooms with good phones dedicated for students to use for phone interviews. If they don’t have those rooms, then raise a stink because they should have them.

    • to add to the phone tips, if you are using a cell phone, or even if you’re using a land line, try to use a headset or a blue tooth.

      It leaves you both hands free to take notes, and for me anyway, it makes some of the advice below about sounding energetic easier. I can sit up straight ( no phone cradling) and talk as if the person is sitting in front of me – which for me sometimes involves a little hand gesturing.

      I also always have a glass of water with a straw in it with me. The straw makes less slurping sounds over the phone than sipping out of a glass. The headset helps with that too, you can move the microphone or mute the phone for a second.

      Oh and don’t use any of the peripherals I mentioned for the FIRST time at the interview. Make sure you’re very comfortable with the features you want to use well before the interview.

    • PharmaGirl :

      Definitely agree with the land line suggestion. I had to do a phone interview with a VIP at current company and my phone dropped the call TWICE.

  2. Speaking as an employer, be careful if you have pre-prepared responses to questions you think will be asked. We had an excellent candidate in our last round and we Skyped with her. She was very clearly referring to prepared responses to some of our questions and it made her seem a lot less warm. When we got her off script with some questions, she actually because more warm and likeable. We now prefer Skype, but still had to do a lot of phone interviews with people who did not have access to stable internet during their interview (on a lunch hour, etc.). We didn’t give preference to those who Skyped, but it does make a difference if you can pull it off.

  3. Also: Get dressed! When I was unemployed I hung out in pajamas and barely-not-pajamas, but I wore real clothes for my phone interviews. You could wear a suit, but at least put on a full, coordinated outfit, do your hair, and put in your contacts (that’s a big deal for me to feel “awake”).

    Also, do NOT sit in front of a computer. If you must, turn off the monitor. It helps you focus.

    • Even beyond turning off the monitor, I would suggest you stand up and even walk around a little bit. It helps keep me focused and alert.

    • I second this. I’ve only had a couple phone interviews, and dressing like I would for an in-person interview always made me feel more prepared and reminded me to take it seriously.

  4. karenpadi :

    As someone who does phone screens, relax about interrupting each other. It’s a phone interview and both parties will accidentally interrupt the other multiple times during the interview because there are no non-verbal cues. The first time it happens, say “pardon me” and let the interviewer take the lead.

    I try to wait 2-3 seconds before asking a next question in case the candidate has more to add but I think some candidates take the pause as expecting more information. So if you think the interviewer has interrupted you, ignore it.

  5. I think the preparation is the same. I like phone interviews because you can have your notes in front of you. I pace while on the phone so having the space to do so it nice. Some people can sneak off to a conference room or just shut their office door. I felt more comfortable getting out of my office all together and just working from home for that time. I also made sure that kids, dogs, landlines, etc. were out of the house/silenced as much as possible. My most recent phone interview was with 4 interviewers who were all sitting in a conference room. It was hard to distinguish voices, but I got through it. I did send everyone pretty much identical thank you notes after the interview.

  6. Also, if you are applying in an industry that expects you to answer “text book” questions, make sure you are prepared for those. While people may not expect you to remember all of the right answers from memory in a face to face situation a telephone interview, you can have as many “cheat sheets” as you want during a phone interview, so there is no excuse not to know them or at least have them written down.

  7. TJ: What is an appropriate baby gift for a man to give his (male) boss? DH and his boss work closely together in a very small office, and boss’s first baby was just born premature, so no office shower or gift had been planned yet. Are preemie clothes useful, or are they outgrown too quickly? I’d appreciate any ideas. Thanks!

    • Sugar Magnolia :

      I would give him a gift certificate to a favorite local restaurant that delivers, for those days when they don’t want to cook after getting not much sleep with the new baby.

    • Baby Mama :

      Food and/or gift cards for food (takeout) is always great for any new parent, but particularly one whose baby is premature, because they likely didn’t have time to prepare freezer meals. If you really want to do clothes, I’d stick with newborn/0-3 sizes.

    • Is the baby home yet? I had no idea how much having a premie can completely disrupt everything until our good friends’ baby was born at 32 weeks. They were driving up and back to the hospital every day, and when she wasn’t driving up there, she was pumping so they could tube feed him (we calculated it was about 3 – 4 hours of every day).

      Anyway, if the baby’s still in the hospital, clothes won’t be much use. He won’t be dressed until he’s almost ready to go home. Gift cards to restaurants around the hospital would probably be appreciated. They both frequently went to see him right after work, spent some time with him, then had dinner and went back for another hour or so before they went home.

      Also f the little guy is still in the hospital, there is a LOT of handwashing, with very unfriendly (disinfecting) soap. If your husband wouldn’t feel wierd about it, a good fragrance free hand lotion might be a nice gift for dad….to be fair, my husband wouldn’t give anyone that…but I probably would.

    • Research, Not Law :

      Preemie clothes can be welcome, since parents rarely plan their child to be in them. If you’re concerned, then go with newborn size. The 0-3 will eventually fit, though.

      Food (take-out and delivery) are very welcome. If the baby is in for a long stay at the NICU, I’ve heard gas cards are appreciated as the parents are making frequent trips back and forth.

      My husband’s office pooled and got us a sizeable gift card for a nice toy store, which we appreciated. The real pay-out comes at about 6-12 months, but it was truely the gift that kept giving.

    • If the family wasn’t really ready yet, then even simple things like diapers and wipes will be helpful. Wipes obviously can’t be outgrown.

      Receiving blankets, hooded towels, baby washrags, and sleep sacks are other things that are pretty much one-size-fits-all and it’s hard to have too many of them.

  8. Made the rookie mistake once of not knowing whether I would be making or receiving the call (the lady arranging the interview just said “great, I’ll put you down for 9:30” but never gave me any contact information despite asking for mine). Turns out I was supposed to call, which I learned after calling the receptionist 10 minutes into the allotted time. Surprisingly I managed to get the job (it was for a summer job) but I still felt like SUCH an idiot.

    • karenpadi :

      That was the fault of the lady arranging the interview. I wouldn’t have dinged you for that–especially if she never gave you any contact information.

  9. hellskitchen :

    Stand up to do your call! Without gestures and expressions, phone conversations can sound monotonous, especially when you are sharing long answers – standing up injects more energy into your call… works much like the advice about smiling from Kat

  10. Leave yourself a buffer of time in case the call comes early or late! I did a phone interview in the states with a European organization and they calculated the time difference wrong by an hour. When they called I had just stepped out of the shower, and I did the entire 45 min. interview in my towel. They offered to call back at the correct time, but it was a panel and they were all ready to go, so I didn’t want to make them do that.

    • LegallyRed :

      I’ve also had a “just got out of the shower” phone interview (but I at least got to the next interview round), so now I always confirm that the interview is at whatever time in the caller’s time zone.

  11. Any city workers have advice on where to take the phone interview if you’re already working?
    I had a phone interview recently for a great company, but I’m also currently working. I work in a cubicle, and had planned to take the extra office in my company’s space (where I usually go for dr.’s calls and other personal things). Imagine my freak out when I walk in the day of the interview and colleagues from another office are occupying the space!

    Luckily, they cleared out by lunch and I was able to take the office, and was offered an in-person interview. The stairwell of my current building is well-trafficked and lacks good cell reception.

    Anyone else have suggestions for future calls?

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I did a phone interview once in my car in the parking lot at school as a last resort once. It worked out ok. The car was off and luckily nothing loud happened nearby. The reception was good and I did get the job. It wasn’t the best choice but might work in a pinch.

    • This is a perpetual issue for me, not for interviews but personal calls in general- I work in a shared office and there’s no guarantee of privacy in the lunch room, conference room, hallway, etc. For a really important call I may be on awhile, such as an interview or with a doctor, I would definitely just work from home that morning.

    • I had a phone interview which I knew would be brief while working in a space where it was difficult to find a quiet space (without co-workers knowing). While I 100% agree with Kat about quiet space, if you’re in a pinch (not worth taking time off for a phone call, etc.) convey that before the call. In an email, when we arranged for noon, I said, “I wanted to let you know, because it’s during the day and I work full time, I will be at Starbucks for the interview. If this is a problem, let me know and we can find a better time.” She was fine with it and 100% understood. It worked out really well and I bet if I REALLY needed we could have done something before or after lunch. I didn’t get the job in the end, but I did get an in person interview. Honesty = great.

  12. Professional Phone Interviewer :

    I conduct phone interviews daily – I am a recruiter for a national organization with offices all over the country, so we rely heavily on phone interviews. Knowing whom you are speaking with does make a difference in the content you can expect – if it’s an HR person, you can be pretty sure you are going to get questions aimed at your knowledge of the company itself and the industry or sector, plus questions aimed at determining your culture fit with the organization. It is unlikely that an HR person will ask super technical questions at this stage, and if he/she does it is probably from a script give to him/her by the hiring manager so they may have a narrowly defined set of “right” answers and may not have the expertise to interpret something that is close to the mark. Put yourself in their shoes and help them through your thinking if you are not sure how you answer could be interpreted. If your interview is with a hiring manager, you can expect more of a mix of technical and culture match questions. Knowing your interviewer can also help with the prep of the questions you should ask…and yes, you should have questions!

    We focus heavily on culture match in the first phone round and our email invitations say specifically to review that section of our website. You would be shocked at how many people do not. You would also be shocked at the number of people who call me on static-y bluetooth devices while driving. Trust me – if none of the scheduling options provided to you work with your schedule, the interviewer will appreciate your asking for alternatives rather than suffering through a painful call where you can barely hear each other. Plus, if you say something like, “I am so sorry but I am working on a time-sensitive project that requires all of my attention this week” we appreciate that dedication to your current job. If no lunch hour options are provided, ask for one, and go sit in your car or find another quiet spot, and let the interviewer know up front that is the case. We do understand that it is hard to look for a job while you are working and try to be accommodating (realize not all orgs are like this, but that should be a flag about the kind of culture you are getting into, also).

  13. I have a funny phone interview story: When I was a law student I submitted tons of resumes to different federal agencies. One day I got a voicemail asking me to schedule a phone interview for an agency, but the reception wasn’t great, and I couldn’t tell if the agency was the SEC, the FEC, or the FCC. I called the number the caller left, but it was his direct line, so he just said his name when he picked up. I scheduled the interview having no idea which agency it was. I prepared as best I could for any of the three possible agencies. Luckily, early in the interview the interviewers talked about the work enough for me to figure it out, and the interview went fine from there. I ended up getting the job and spent my 2L summer having a great time at the mystery agency. But I think I should win some sort of prize for the Most Nerve-Wracking Phone Interview Ever.

    • Honey Pillows :

      DC is ridiculously in love with acronyms.

    • Hah! What a perfect DC story. I do think you win the prize (and major props for getting the job anyway)!

  14. This should be common sense to most people, but try to avoid during your phone interview at the office. At least go outside and talk on your cell phone. A couple weeks ago the guy in the cubicle next to mine did his interview from his cubicle, with my boss ten feet away. She was not pleased, and made him hang up the phone. I doubt he’s getting that job…

    • That’s a particularly dumb move… how was he that dense?

      The empty office worked in my case because it’s in a secluded part of the floor and everyone’s used to people ducking in there for personal conversations. Our building is in a large city, on a particularly well-traveled avenue, so there’s no quiet to be had anywhere.

      However, I’ve also had the luck of literally running into my MD after my last interview (unfortunately didn’t get that job), on the street, in a different part of town. Luckily, he was either kind enough or didn’t care enough to dig into why I was there.

  15. I actually got my first “grown-up” job after university by a telephone interview (I had summered in the organization before, albeit a different department, so they asked my previous boss for a reference instead of bringing me in). I was in my PJs, and I frequently joke that it’s the only job I’ll get dressed like that.

    What I did was to research, research, research, similar organizations to the one I was applying with – making notes, but also having their webpages up on my laptop during the interview – so I could draw parallels to similar things done by others. I knew the organization from having summered there, but the dept was different and I did some research on that.

    The difficult thing in a telephone interview is that there aren’t any clues. You can’t see your interviewers and judge how they react, and I also frequently found myself nodding instead of replying.

  16. I’ve had one phone interview–the only interview for a 9-month job. It was a Skype call, which I took on speaker. I sat in a chair at my desk and made myself focus just like if I was in a face to face interview. There were several people at the other end, and I could tell they were in a room together. I tried hard to learn voices fast. When the secretary called to schedule, she mentioned very quickly who would be in the interview. I googled them all, printed out cvs and other info, circled common interests, had my own cv in front of me, as well as a list of questions. I did not read directly from any of these pages, but totally made use of the fact that the interviewers couldn’t see me to silently look things up. I also restarted my computer before the call, just in case I needed to look anything up (Macs have quiet keyboards) When I knew what I was going to say, I sat up straight, looked straight ahead, smiled, and said it with good intonation. I was really wiped out afterwards, guess I did ok because I got the job.

  17. Divaliscious11 :

    I’ll only add, know your stuff, as if its the final interview. I recently had an interview with an HR person, who had been working with the hiring team for so long that she was really aware of what they were looking for, beyond do you have the technical skills to do the job. She was probing for soft skills, that are intrinsic to being successful in the role. Don’t assume HR/Talent Acquisition people don’t have substantive knowledge. The good ones understand the business they work for and the needs of the organization.

  18. I’ve been doing quite a lot of phone interviews lately. I love the fact that I can have the job listing up on my laptop so I can refer to it during the call.

    When I was taking phone interviews at my last job, my trick was to schedule them at 4 pm and then go around the corner to a quiet wine bar. I’d have a glass of wine while I talked on the phone. It relaxed me, but also made it easier to chat about myself for 45 minutes or so.

  19. Before leaving my last job I got to be a part of the interview process for the candidates filling my position. One of the people who was a great candidate on paper really bombed because his answers were simply too long and lacked direction/cohesion. Certainly brevity is important in any interview situation, but in a phone interview it is especially important because the candidates doesn’t have access to the nonverbal communication signals that typically remind people to wrap it up.

  20. I’ve had several phone interviews, for two very different fields – management consulting and biological research. The first consulting phone interview went well because I was later invited to their “advanced degree” workshop based on the interview. I did a couple of things that I was told were impressive:

    (1) I took an early time slot, right after the interviewer settled into work (8:30 am for him but 5:30 am for me!). The interviewer noticed that I was three hours ahead and said it was a sign that I was enthusiastic. In reality, I spaced on the time difference when setting up the interview and was mentally kicking myself up to the morning (can you call it that?) of the call. I did not tell him that.

    (2) I stood up throughout the interview. I felt a lot more confident and less stressed if I could walk around and gesture more freely.

    (3) I tried to smile a lot when appropriate. It does seem to come through in your voice.

    Another management consulting phone interview went horribly, and I did not get a second-round interview. Notes to learn from:

    (1) Do not do the interview if you are sick… I got sick with a monster sinus infection two days before the scheduled call and didn’t feel like I could reschedule. I sounded awful and couldn’t think straight.

    (2) I sat down throughout the interview because I was feeling sick. I felt like I was just taking notes during class the whole time. I also had bad posture.

    (3) I argued with the interviewer instead of carefully considering what he was saying when he was trying to lead me to a certain answer, which is common in consulting interviews. This was also possibly due to being sick, but I knew as soon as I did it that the interview was over. Do not argue with your interviewer. Easier said than done.

  21. It’s been mentioned once or twice, but my big piece of advice for telephone interviews is – put on your office gear! Dress like it’s a normal interview! It’s hard to get into the right mindset if you’re in a t-shirt and jeans, and that will come across in your voice.

  22. Go the extra mile on preparation – because you can’t be seen, you need to work extra hard on what you say and make them want to bring you in. As serious as you need to take the interview, be flexible enough in the event of technological glitches. Both successful phone interviews I had had call glitches. The first one I got called 1/2 hour EARLY because of a last-minute schedule change at the company, and the fact that I was willing to still take the call showed flexibility and that I was ready. The second one the conference calling number for some reason I could not connect to, and luckily I was able to use another phone number and get to the call. On a third, less successful call, I also had a glitch, and called a different number, getting a huffy response that I’d “called the wrong number”, when in fact I was calling because the conference call hadn’t started yet –
    Don’t call too early.

    Prep as much as you can – annual reports, external news sources, know what’s going on at the company, and be able to bring it up in conversation, and ask questions about how current events in the company may impact your work or department. Show them you really want to work there.

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