How to impress over the phone by preparing for the worst.
If you’re on this page, odds are you’ve already taken some pretty big steps when it comes to finding yourself a job.
You’ve written your resume and at least a basic outline for your cover letter, and put together whatever other application materials your particular field calls for (portfolios, writing samples, etc.). Maybe you’ve even come up with a few different versions for each of these if you’re considering different kinds of careers.
Then you trolled the internet for job postings, looking for anything at all that piqued your interest. If you’re really on top of things, you tailored your documents as specifically as you could to your desired listing.
Finally, you gathered all your documents together, sent them out into the deep dark void, and started your turn in the newest round of the Waiting Game.
Days, weeks, months, or even years later, you finally got a response. They like your stuff! Random Corporate Entity thinks you might have what it take to be part of the team.
But now years have passed. You’re older. Phones are everywhere. Music is too loud. It’s the future and there’s robots now. And instead of an in-person interview like you expected, they want to talk to you over the phone.
Conducting phone interviews, or “phone screening,” is becoming more and more common as a preliminary step for companies trying to weed out lesser job applicants. In-person interviews are still typically the final step in the process, but phone screening offers a simple, quick, and convenient option for hiring managers looking to get the best applicant, since they can be done from almost anywhere.
For you, the applicant, there’s a whole new set of challenges that come with speaking to someone over the phone, but if you’re careful and plan ahead, you might end up finding more advantages than disadvantages in the medium.
One of the biggest advantages you have in any phone interview is your ability to keep your application materials on hand at all times. In person, it can seem unprofessional at points to bring your own resume for yourself to look over while you’re being grilled by a hiring manager — after all, they’re the one looking over your resume, and you having to constantly consult a sheet of paper adds an extra layer of distance between you and the hirer that doesn’t need to exist.
In a phone interview, however, the distance is already there, and having information on hand for referencing isn’t disruptive in the same way it might be in person. Theoretically, in a phone interview you should always be able to have information on hand for any question you might be asked.
The downside of this is what effect this knowledge has on a hiring manager’s expectations for phone interviewees.
Ever heard of Schrödinger’s Cat? Stick with me here for a second.
The thought experiment goes something like this. You put a live cat in a box along with a tiny amount of radioactive matter, some poison, and a Geiger counter. The counter releases the poison if it detects radiation.
As long as the box stays closed then after a certain point, mathematically speaking, the cat is alive and dead at the same time. Since it can’t be observed, you have no way to be sure.
But as soon as you open the box, you’re flipping a quantum coin; either the cat is alive, or the cat is dead. If you can see the cat, it can’t be both, so it becomes one or the other.
Now, try this on for size: you’re the cat.
Until the manager calls you, they have no way of knowing for sure whether you have these materials on hand or not, so as an interviewee you’re in a bit of a quantum state yourself. You have your materials ready. You don’t have your materials ready.
So you have to ask yourself, when the interviewer calls and opens that box, what side of the wave function are you going to be on? Are you alive, or are you not getting hired? Or are you dead and … wait. You’re a cat. Human. Hang on.
Pictured: You, a box cat made of poison (?).
Anyways, the point is that, since your interviewer is already aware that you might have these materials ready, you’re already a few steps behind if you decide to forgo them.
They’re going to be looking at your materials themselves as they’re talking to you, so if they ask you about something specific and you end up having to look that up or, worse yet, not being able to remember something significant, keep in mind that you’re going to end up looking very unprepared.
That kind of fumbling might be forgiven in person, where body language can be used to pick up some of the slack when it comes to communication, but over the phone, your voice is all you have. As a result, you want to be very intentional about every word you say.
Some good ways to prepare for an interview:
Whatever you do, make sure you have all reference materials on hand before the interviewer calls, and you suddenly realize you’ve been both dead and a cat the whole time.
Another big advantage is in your ability to control your own environment. Treat this interview like you’re doing it in person, and remove all distractions from the area in which you’re working.
If at all possible, use a personal, private space rather than a coffee shop or co-working space, in order to reduce noise pollution and ensure that you won’t be interrupted.
In the event that there are any animals in your house, make sure you put them outside or in a different room — the last thing you want is a cute little guy running up to you and wrecking your flow. No matter how cute said little guy might be.
Clear your space, and clear your mind. Find your center. And have a glass of water handy in case you’re mouth gets all dry and gross.
Put your documents in a perfect circle on the floor around you. Find a swivel chair. Be ready to spin at all times: you’re gonna want to be mobile in order to find the information you need in a hurry. But try not to fall off the chair, or that will definitely reflect poorly on you as a job candidate.
Obviously please do not listen to that last paragraph, but definitely do everything else in this section. And still have your documents close by. Just maybe in a more accessible form.
Then sit and wait for the boom.
The phone! Ringing! Answer! Do it now!
Alright, calm down nerd, it’s not a race. Make sure you introduce yourself clearly, in such a way to imply that you were anticipating and ready for the interview.
Speak clearly and enunciate, but try not to focus too hard on doing so. You don’t want to sound unnatural or robotic. Keep the tone as conversational as you can — just be sure that your interviewer can hear and understand you.
After that, it’s really just a matter of whether you actually prepared for the questions you’re going to be asked. Again, it’s a really good idea to have your resume and other application materials on hand here.
Beyond that, everything else is just about having basic social skills. But that’s a whole other article.
That’s it! You killed it, probably. And if not, you’ll certainly have a better idea of how much you need to have prepared for next time.
It’s a balancing act, after all. Some people are just naturally good at improvisation, and if they have great memories to boot, they’ll have an easy time with interviews of any stripe or color. Everyone else just has to learn to balance out their weaknesses with the appropriate level of prep work.
Be sure to check out our other articles on how to nail your next interview. Best of luck!
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