A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cites an increase in the number of departments conducting first round interviews remotely — typically by phone but perhaps increasingly through other technology. The cost benefits for hiring committees are clear. Conducting telephone interviews is a much cheaper way to screen an applicant pool. As the first step in the interview process, the phone interview becomes critical. But it also brings some unique challenges compared with in-person interviews. What are some of those challenges, and how can you maximize your chances for success?
A successful phone interview starts with ensuring that there are no logistical problems from your end. Consider ahead of time the best number for you to use. If it’s a cell phone, you’ll want to be sure you are in a place that has good coverage. It probably goes without saying that your phone should be charged (but then again, when it comes to interviewing nothing should be left unsaid). Regardless of what phone you use, try to eliminate the potential for any distractions, for example, call waiting clicking in. And perhaps most importantly, be sure you are in a location where you know you will not be disturbed — by colleagues if you are at school, by family or other distractions if you are at home.
Non-Verbals: Maintaining (Eye) Contact
Communications experts tell us that much of what is communicated happens through our non-verbals; yet with a phone interview it is seemingly all about the verbals. How can you ensure that you are sending an overall positive message during your phone interview without the benefit of positive non-verbals? You may not have eye contact to rely on, but these ideas can help:
- Dress for success. Sure you could wear your footed pajamas and no one would know. But it’s important for you to establish the right tone for this interview, just as you would in person. Dressing down in the comforts of your own home may establish a tone that is informal, casual, perhaps too relaxed. Some experts suggest dressing up just as you would for any other interview, to help get you in the right frame of mind.
- The same applies for other traditional non-verbal tips. Sit up straight, perhaps with a slight lean forward as you may in an in-person setting. All of these ideas will help you convey the right tone. If done right, this tone will come through even over the phone lines.
- Master the names. Phone interviews typically include several people from a search committee, who will introduce themselves at the start of a conversation. Putting names to voices and using the names appropriately can be a way to establish personal connections, even if you are not able to look the person in the eye.
- Avoid getting lost in paper. Yes, with a phone interview you have the ability to have notes in front of you, and to take notes as the conversation unfolds. And yes, you run the risk of getting lost in paper and losing sight of the conversation. Focusing on the department’s course guide, or the 17 page vita of a search committee member, means you are not focusing on questions and answers. My advice is to MINIMIZE these distractions. You can always take notes immediately after the conversation.
Managing the Conversation
In any interview you want to feel as though the search committee is really with you, that you are having a conversation in which everyone is engaged. It’s easier to judge whether this is happening face-to-face. You can read the body language and facial expressions of the committee to tell how they are responding. And if the body language seems negative you can react accordingly. These visual cues don’t exist over the phone. The risk is higher that you could lose the group if you are not careful. Trust me, I’ve seen searches where committee members are rolling their eyes at a particularly difficult answer; or chairs roll back and people slump down in their seats; or worst of all, interviewers become distracted by other work on their desks! Some simple strategies can help you manage phone conversations correctly:
- Consider keeping your answers briefer than usual. The greatest risk is that interviewers check out from the conversation, and you don’t even know it. In a phone interview it is so much easier for attention to wander. And if that happens, it is so hard to get it back. Keeping your answers shorter and more concise allows the committee to follow up if they would like more information. It also allows you to…
- Check in with the group on occasion. More concise answers allow you to (occasionally) ask the group if you’ve answered the question sufficiently, or if they would like to hear more. If you’re unsure about a question, it’s probably better (occasionally) to ask for clarification rather than answering something different than what they were hoping to hear.
- Don’t be afraid of small silences as you formulate your answers. This is true in any interview, where even a brief pause may seem like an interminable amount of time passing. This may feel even more awkward over the phone, without the physical connection. But better to pause briefly, for a second or two, to compose a coherent answer rather than feeling the need to immediately launch into an answer as soon as the question is finished. Again, your goal is to be sure you’re on point with your answers rather than rambling and losing your audience. If a brief pause can help you do that effectively, then it’s worth it. If pauses make you too uncomfortable, you can also insert some of those generic time fillers – “hmmm, that’s a good question….” or “hmmm, let me think about that for a second….” — while you think of your answer.
So stow the loungewear, and make sure the cat won’t jump up on the table. Prepare as you would for any interview, paying special attention to the challenges the phone presents.
As always, I would love to hear your stories of surviving the telephone interview.
Photo Credit: david.nikonvscanon on Flickr