Since phone and Skype interviews are becoming more common (and cost-effective) alternatives to the traditional convention interview, you should familiarize yourself with the unique experience that is the remote interview. There are some obvious advantages to these interviews — namely, that you’ll be in the comfort of your own environment (they won’t notice your sweaty palms, or the fact that you’re wearing pajama pants), and you’ll have all your notes and sample syllabi right in front of you — but there are also some distinct disadvantages, most obviously:
- Technology issues, including connectivity and audio problems
- The inability to harness that je ne sais quoi of face-to-face, in-person connection energy
- The high risk of potential interruptions and noises on your end (pets, children, neighbors)
This guide is about how to minimize as many of these issues as possible, how to use the advantages to greatest effect, and, ultimately how to reinject some of that much-needed je ne sais quoi.
STEP ONE: FACT-GATHERING
As with convention interviews, you’ll probably get a phone call from your interviewer inviting you to the phone/Skype interview. While they’ll usually send a follow-up email with further details, make sure that you get the answers to these basic questions during the initial conversation:
- Who is on the interview committee?
- Which time zone does the specified interview time refer to?*
- Who will be calling/Skyping whom?
- For Skype: Should I invite you as a contact, or vice versa?
- What is an alternative contact number I can use in case there are technology problems?
STEP TWO: SETUP
In the days before your interview, have a friend or family member call or Skype you for a dry run (if you can’t find anybody, open up your Skype contacts and connect to “Skype Video Test Call”). Make sure you’re familiar with how the application works, and what it will look and sound like when you receive a video call. Also, make sure that your interviewer appears on your contact list at least a couple of days ahead of time.
For Skype, the most important thing is to create an effective space which is mostly free of visual and auditory distractions.
- Choose a wall (rather than a room or window) as your background, preferably one with a little bit of interest (some color, a neutral-colored painting)
- Adjust lighting and close windows to minimize outside noise and glare
- Place your computer on a table or desk and elevate it to approximately eye level by stacking large books or reams of printer paper underneath. Position the screen so it’s about 2-3 feet away from you, and angle it so that the camera is pointed straight at you or slightly downward. Do not have the camera look up into your nose. Make sure your entire head is fully visible on screen (not just forehead down).
- The camera should be far enough away from you that you should not have to look directly into it (rather than at the on-screen image of your interviewers) for them to feel that you’re making eye contact.
- Test out the image by opening up PhotoBooth (on a Mac) or another video capture program.
- Test out the sound by doing a dry run call with a friend or family member in a different location. Acoustics are crucial; if your voice sounds tinny or echo-y, those sounds will be painfully amplified when played over a large speaker on the committee’s end. Try a different room or part of a room, or use a small clip-on microphone if available.
- Make sure your computer or phone is plugged into/near a power source during the interview
- Ensure that your Skype username and profile picture are neutral and professional
- Use ethernet if possible. If your wifi or phone connection is notoriously bad, either choose a better location or, for Skype, have an alternative connection (ie the cellular network on your phone or tablet, which you can usually use as a hotspot for your computer) ready at hand.
If there are specific syllabi that you’ll need to refer to during the interview, have them open and available on the screen (try to close all other windows to avoid confusion), or summarize their main points in one window that you keep open as a sidebar. Do the same with questions you’ll want to ask them at the end of the interview, but make sure that if you have to access the touchpad, that your hands remain off-camera. Unless you’re doing a phone interview, avoid printing out documents, as it will be obvious that you’re looking down and reading.
STEP THREE: INTERVIEW LOGISTICS
Five minutes or so before your scheduled time, make sure Skype is open and your speakers are at medium volume (for phone interviews, if you’re using a Bluetooth headset, make sure it’s paired and ready). Seat yourself (you should feel free to have a glass of water at hand) and do a quick final test to make sure you’re framed at an appropriate angle and distance. If you’re supposed to call them, wait until exactly the scheduled time.
- Once the video (or call) starts, say hello and then, at the first opportunity, ask if they can see and hear you ok.
- Don’t lean into the microphone or speak at a higher volume, it will distort your voice.
- For Skype calls with larger interview committees (4+), it’s common for at least one member to be slightly (or totally) off-screen or difficult to hear. Make sure to notify them immediately about this; they’ll appreciate it.
- If, as mentioned before, there is a good possibility that your phone or internet connection will cut out, make sure to let them know and have a contingency plan: “I’m sorry, my internet connection has been very unreliable lately. If we’re disconnected, I’ll use my tablet instead and will call you right back.”
- Be prepared for a slight time lag; if it’s quite obvious, feel free to make brief mention of it – “It looks like there’s a bit of lag here, so I’m sorry if it seems like I’m taking an excessively long time to respond” – and use it to your advantage by taking your time when formulating answers.
- Avoid using excessive hand motions, which can compound the lag issue and look especially distracting because of how large your hands will appear in comparison to the rest of you.
- Keep your answers succinct and detailed. As Prof. Emily Stockard (FAU)* notes, “It is hard when there can be no conversational give and take, so the candidate has to provide the structure when answering a question. A good strategy is to break the questions into components and answer each in turn.”
STEP FOUR: BRINGING THE ENERGY
Because you won’t have access to any of the traditional “connection” opportunities of the in-person interview – the firm handshake, the mirrored body language, small talk about the room – use your face, voice and upper body to communicate that instead (even with a phone interview):
- Keep your body relaxed but open, either by sitting slightly farther back or by resting your elbows casually on the table.
- Consciously keep a smile or pleasantly neutral expression on your face; on their end, your image is likely magnified to full projector-screen size, so communicate your liveliness through subtle expression changes and slight nods rather than full-body movement. Because of that amplification, though, resolutely avoid the tell-tale body language of nervousness: biting your lip, or bringing your hand up to smooth your hair, touch your neck, or cover your mouth.
- Maintain uninterrupted eye contact (with the screen, not the camera) when answering and being asked questions, but feel free to look up to the side and fill the silence with a “Hmm” while formulating a response.
STEP FIVE: DEALING WITH PROBLEMS
Rest assured that your interviewers are just as aware of the awkwardness of the medium as you are; in fact, use that shared awareness to your advantage by making light of the situation if problems arise:
- If a loud outside noise interrupts you – or, as in my case, a feline decides to turn on the kitchen sink ten feet away – don’t let it frazzle you. Just make a light-hearted comment about it – “oops, sorry, there’s that famous LA traffic”; “Sorry, my cat just turned the sink on, I guess she didn’t like my answer to that one” – and continue where you left off, filling in the gap with “so where was I…” to give yourself some time.
- It’s extremely common for interviewees to feel that one or more committee members was bored or unengaged on Skype; perhaps they kept looking off screen, or tapped their foot impatiently throughout. But you have to remember that your interviewers are likely as uncomfortable about being “on-screen” as you are, and that these minute, meaningless gestures are simply being amplified tenfold. Go in knowing that you’ll feel some natural “distance” from the committee — especially because they’ll usually be seated quite far away from the camera or even in a long row, facing you – and force yourself not to read into it too much during the interview.
- If the phone or video suddenly cuts out, don’t freak out: activate your contingency plan, and don’t worry over the five minutes lost. Once you’re back online, be apologetic but not overly panicked; again, a little humor can go a long way: “Sorry about that, it looks like Verizon is conspiring against me. Where were we?”
- One advantage of the phone/Skype interview is that you can use technological hiccups as a cover if you run into a question that stumps you. You can use “I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite hear you. Could you repeat that?” or “How would I teach American literature before 1865, is that what you said?” to buy yourself a few precious seconds in which to come up with a better answer. (Obviously, don’t overuse this tactic)
STEP SIX: FOLLOW-UP
As always, it’s good practice to send a brief thank-you email to the committee; in this case, though, the thank-you note is also another opportunity to inject a human touch. If there was some distraction or tech problem, make casual or humorous mention of it, and emphasize that you look forward to having a more personal and uninterrupted conversation in the future. It’s also a good idea to remove them from your contact list after the interview, just to prevent the possibility of accidentally calling them, or of them catching sight of an unprofessional status message or profile picture (or being able to see that you’re online all hours of the day and night).
*Many thanks to Professor Emily Stockard of Florida Atlantic University for her helpful feedback and additional tips.