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Five Tips on How to Score on a Telephone Interview


Creative recruiter, career coach, copywriter, and author Wendy Lalli has seen every side of a phone interview: as someone hiring, a creative looking for her next gig, and as a coach training her clients. 

She’s the mind behind the career advice column “Dear Lalli,” which ran in 25 papers in the Chicago Sun Times network as well as the author of many articles on job search for the Chicago Tribune.

We’re ecstatic to have her share her advice with you on how to nail your next phone interview.

In this digital age, interviewing for a job often feels like a chess match. First, there comes the opening gamut of submitting a resume. Hopefully, this leads to a confirmation call from an internal or external recruiter to set up a phone interview with the hiring manager. Now the game really begins—or ends—depending on how well you do during this introductory conversation with the client.

To prepare for the call, do everything possible to eliminate physical distractions that might interfere with your ability to focus. If you’re on assignment, try to secure an empty office on your lunch hour or at a convenient time for the interviewer and your fellow workers. But if you’re at home, make sure pets are out of barking range and that the kids are safely occupied. Ideally, take the call on a landline at a desk in a room with a closed door. Have a pen and paper ready to take notes during the interview as well as your resume and printouts of any work samples previously submitted to the client. You might also print out the About Us page from the employer’s web site and perhaps the interviewer’s LinkedIn profile including a photo. 

All of the above may be information you already know. However, below are five new insights that I think will boost your success rate not only on phone interviews, but throughout every phase of your job search.

Tip 1. Understand that an interview is not about YOU - but how well you can do the job

Let’s face it - most of us like to talk about ourselves. Moreover, when someone in authority says, “tell me about yourself,” the temptation is to begin your story with your first job and ramble through for 5 minutes until the present day. This may be fine if you’re relatively new to the workforce or moved up the corporate ladder in the same company over the course of your career. However, for senior level candidates who fear age discrimination or people who have transitioned from one industry to another or who have significant gaps in their employment history, talking about their careers chronologically can have some serious pitfalls.

For example, suppose you’re interviewing for a position in the corporate communications department of an up-and-coming company. You feel you’d be an excellent fit for this position since you previously prepared internal communications for several Fortune 500 industry icons. However, that experience is now ten years in the past. If you reference it as part of a chronological narrative, the interviewer may conclude that your expertise is dated. Thus, the very thing you thought of as a strength is seen as a weakness.

How can you avoid this problem? Instead of answering the question, “Tell me about yourself” with a traditional biographical monologue, frame it as an answer to, “Tell me why you’re the best person for this job.” After all, isn’t that what the interviewer really wants to know anyway?

Don’t ad-lib this answer. Write it down as if you’re taking a written test. Since the interviewer can’t see you, you can read it off cue cards or from a notebook as if you just thought of it. Remember, a one-minute speech is about 125 to 150 words. If your opening answer is about two minutes long, the written version should be between 250 and 300 words. You can mention your education and give a one sentence summation of your experience, but by the second sentence you should start talking about the successful projects you’ve done that demonstrate your ability to do the job at hand.

Tip 2. Research the company AND the interviewer as deeply as you can before the interview

It’s vital to understand who you’re talking to, what their company does, and what their own role is within that company.  Start by going on the corporate website and reading it thoroughly - especially those About Us pages. Check out the bios of the people—not only the managers, but any staff who have bios as well. If they include references to hobbies, pets and favorite jokes as well as education and professional credentials, they probably favor a more creative than corporate environment. This can give you some clues as to which of your career assignments are most likely to impress them. You might also do a Google search on the company as well as read its blogs and explore its social media pages. This will give you a good sense of its values, culture and voice.

You might also look up the interviewer on LinkedIn. See how long they’ve been with the company, how they describe their position and employer on their own profile and check out any connections or groups you have in common with them. Don’t forget to check if they’ve posted any blogs on LinkedIn. If they have, read them.

Why go to all this trouble? Think about it. The interviewer has seen your resume and samples and knows a lot about you. Learning almost as much about them should put you on an equal footing. Even better, finding points of connection between you can help turn a cold interview into a friendly conversation. What you’re looking for are links you can use to help the interviewer see you as an individual and not just as one of many faceless “candidates.” Just think what a great icebreaker it would be to mention how much you learned from reading their blog! (That could get you hired right there.)  

Tip 3. Prepare an interview "script"

As I mentioned earlier, try to write your answers down to key questions. Professional politicians do this all the time for press interviews to make sure they stay on message. You can do the same thing. Determine what areas of your experience will be of most interest to the interviewer and frame your opening answer around them.

Although I suggested you write out your opening, you can prepare everything else as talking points to prompt you during the discussion. If you focus on getting certain pieces of information across, you’re much less likely to go off on tangents or/and to get yourself in a corner on sensitive issues.

When you’re preparing for the interview, take note of what skillsets and personal qualities are mentioned in the job description. If you were to make a list of the things usually mentioned, the following would probably be on it: proactive problem solver, team player, creative, good leader, excellent time manager, expert multi-tasker, entrepreneurial spirit, etc. Now consider how you’ve demonstrated these qualities and skills in the past. Make a list of these examples and then cull them down so they are as current and as relevant to this particular employer as possible. Go over the stories in your mind to avoid anything that references your age, gender, political beliefs, religion or anything else that could detract from showing that you’re the best fit for the job.

Be aware of how long you want to spend talking about each area of your experience. If the interview is scheduled to last 30 minutes, try to develop an agenda that prioritizes which stories you want to tell first and which you can tell later, if needed. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to make all the points you want to make while still staying within the allotted interview time.

One more thing: if there is a question that you know is going to be difficult to answer like, “why did you leave the company after only five months” or “why was your last full time job two years ago?” come up with a plausible answer that reflects well on your past employer as well as on you. Sometimes even the best jobs don’t work out or end abruptly. Moreover, even the most talented people can go through periods of involuntary unemployment. You don’t have to produce a novel to answer these questions, just a response that will satisfy the interviewer and allow you to move the conversation on to the job at hand. If you’re not sure what to say in these cases, ask your recruiter for advice. Of course, you don’t want to lie, but there’s nothing wrong or dishonest about presenting yourself in the best possible light, especially if you were downsized or the victim of a downturn in the economy.

Tip 4.  Prepare leading questions to ask the interviewer

Not everyone is a good interviewer. This is awkward enough when the interview is in person but it can be truly deadly on the phone. To make life easier for everyone, have a written list of conversation generating questions for the interviewer. Ideally, these questions will reflect your research on the company and industry. For example, you might ask, “What role will this position play in the company’s proposed product launch this fall?” A question like this not only allows you to gather information but also signals the interviewer that you have done your homework and have a deep interest in working for their company.

You might also ask questions that are oriented toward the interviewer’s own personal experience. You might try something like, “Why did you first join the company and what do you like most about it?” Listen carefully to the answers and expand the conversation by offering appropriate examples from your own experience. Taking the interview from a professional interrogation to a social dialogue increases the likelihood of you’re getting a face-to-face interview. And the job.

Tip 5. Ask about the interviewer’s next steps

Finally, as the interview draws to a close, ask about the interviewer’s future intentions. How many more people will they be seeing? When will they be scheduling on site interviews? They probably won’t be ready to commitment themselves to asking you for a second round, but getting a clearer idea of their schedule will help you manage your own expectations.

I hope these suggestions have been helpful both for phone interviews and those that take place onsite as well. Good luck with your job search and thanks for reading.

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