How to ace a phone interview

With no visual cues for a hiring manager to rely on, you need to make the most of your voice. Fortune's Anne Fisher explains how.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: My fiance's company is transferring him to another city, starting the first of the year, so I have been looking for a job there too. Because of the distance involved, a couple of hiring managers at companies I've spoken with have suggested that we start with a phone interview, and then consider the possibility of my flying there to meet more of the management team. I've never been interviewed for a job over the phone before, and I'm a little anxious about it. Any suggestions? -Leaving Las Vegas

Dear LLV: About 40 years ago, a University of Pennsylvania professor named Ray Birdwhistell (really) did a series of experiments proving that only about 30% of what people take away from any conversation comes from the actual words that are exchanged. The other 70% is all based on nuances like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. A phone interview is much like any other interview, with the crucial difference that your voice is all you've got.

Silly as it seems, since the other person can't see you, smiling during a phone interview helps you sound more upbeat and positive.

So, first, make sure the interviewer can hear you clearly. This sounds obvious, but Michael Neece, CEO of Caseridas (, a company in Hopkinton, Mass., that does multimedia interview training, says the biggest mistake he sees people make is trying to conduct job interviews on a cellphone when "surrounded by a lot of noise, at an outdoor café or a busy intersection."

"The interviewer's impression of you is going to be shaped by all the sounds coming through the phone," he says. "So insulate yourself from distractions and background noises."

Start by scheduling the interview for a time when you can find a quiet place to do it. And if at all possible, use a land line. Speaking as someone who spends lots of time interviewing people over the phone, I can attest that there are few things more annoying - and unproductive - than being able to make out only every third word the person on the other end is saying. A conversation that is mostly static is a waste of everybody's time.

Then, use a technique familiar to salespeople who sell over the phone: Stand up, walk around, and smile while you are talking. Standing rather than sitting improves the projection of your voice. And smiling, silly as it seems when the other person can't see you, will make you feel - and sound - upbeat and positive.

What kinds of questions should you expect? According to Neece, phone interviews tend to follow the same pattern as in-person interviews - of which the main purpose is "screening you out of consideration." (Gulp.) He says most phone interviewers ask these basic questions:

  • Tell me about yourself. (Here's where a really polished two-minute "elevator speech" about your accomplishments can really come in handy.)
  • What do you know about our company? (Ideally, plenty.)
  • How did you learn about this position?
  • What is your current, or most recent, salary?
  • What are your compensation requirements?
  • Why are you looking for a new position? (For you, this one's easy: You're moving.)
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Do you have any questions?

That last one is important. "Questions are your primary tool of influence with the interviewer," notes Neece. "They allow you to direct the conversation and figure out if the job, or the company, is right for you."

So put some thought into what you'd like to know. Even though your job hunt is mainly motivated by the need to move, ideally your next step will still advance your overall career goals. It helps to go into your search with a clear idea of what those are.

Also, bear in mind that "your main objective during any phone interview is to try and arrange a face-to-face interview," Neece says. "You'll be more effective discussing your experience and assessing the company in person."

So assuming you're still interested in the job, use your final questions to ask about scheduling an in-person meeting. Good luck!

Readers, have you been interviewed for a job - or interviewed others - over the phone? Was the meeting tougher because it was held over the phone? How did it turn out? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. Top of page