Voice in recruitment

So many things can have an impact on who we hire and why, but how often do we distinguish between what influences us consciously and subconsciously? This study seeks to understand how much voice and delivery makes a difference to the decision to hire or not to hire.

The voice and delivery of a candidate can make a significant difference to the impression formed by an interviewer and possibly even to the final outcome of whether the candidate is hired or not.

One of the questions I asked participants during the study was whether voice and delivery alone would be enough to make them reject a candidate during a phone screen. A surprising 72% said yes. That means, the candidate may not even progress to a face-to-face interview or second stage, regardless of their qualifications, work experience or knowledge level, if they are not able to articulate themselves effectively on the phone.

Hiring is difficult and it really takes time to find the right ‘fit’. It is even more challenging when you have pre-conceived ideas and images of what you’re looking for, beyond the technical criteria.

I remember laughing with a friend and saying that it is so much easier to buy a coat when you don’t go out looking with a particular material, colour and cut in mind and just see what’s out there with an open mind instead. Because even when you see a coat that is nice, if it doesn’t fit the idea that was in your head, it is more susceptible to failing the test. Though on the odd occasion it might win me round. So it’s not that different to hiring, really.

The main findings of the study can be found in the infographic below. But if you’d like to know more about what came out from the conversations with participants around the research, read on below.

I have chosen three areas that really left me thinking about the deeper implications of voice and delivery, how it influences people and what we can do about it.

What we prepare for vs. what makes the biggest difference to the decision

I asked participants about their ‘deal-breakers’ when they are interviewing candidates. The reason I formulated this question is due to the significant number of articles that are circulated stressing the importance of a firm handshake or wearing the appropriate attire for an interview. Body language is another hot topic and ‘mirroring and matching’ your interviewer is often quoted as best practice. How you use your voice is often absent from these best practice tips. Yet, I firmly believe that it can significantly influence the impression an interviewer takes away of you and your ability to fulfil the role.

The difference is that you cannot see someone’s voice, so the impression left by it is often more subconscious. A lot of the participants had to really think hard when they were answering this question and reported back that they hadn’t previously thought about breaking it down in those terms, they were just going by a ‘feeling’. But once they put it in order, they realised that voice and delivery actually played a crucial role in the formation of that feeling.

It is logical. Human beings are primary emotional and instinctive. So how we speak matters. And this is nothing new. The ancient Greeks were enthralled by this connection between sound and emotion and how voice could give an indication into how a person is perceived to be by the listener.

So what can we make of all this? A productive starting point would be to look at how we prepare ourselves for job interviews. We can often place a larger focus on the things our interviewer will see, such as the suit or dress we put on, perfecting slides on a presentation or practicing a firm handshake. I don’t deny the importance of these things, each are important in their own way. But where is the time we pour into actually considering and practicing how we want to say things? Thinking about what our intention is? How we want to come across and why? Testing this on other people to figure out whether the way we come across is actually in keeping with our intention? Because there is no denying how often people respond more to the way in which something has been said rather than to what has actually been said.

Spending time working on how you communicate your qualities and message is key in interview preparation and this should not be underestimated in its potential to influence the final decision. I have always found that challenges in the workplace are less technical and more people-focused. How you speak has an impact on the perception people form of you, the rapport you build with them, the influence you carry and ultimately whether or not people take you seriously, regardless of the level you are at. So making it a preparation point should certainly become a priority if it isn’t already.

Interrupting your interviewer

Interruption became a real topic of contention during my study, due to the wildly different views people had of what it said about a candidate.

Although the overall results show that the majority of participants found interruption to be significantly detrimental to a candidate’s prospects, the interesting response came from the people that didn’t find interruption to be detrimental and their reasoning, which the pure numbers can’t illustrate. A number of participants in fact went on to reveal that interruption for them was a very healthy sign in an interview and could be a huge positive.

Some of the interviewers viewed interruption as healthy interaction and an opportunity for the candidate to influence the conversation. To others, however, the urge to interrupt to get a point across demonstrated a lack of patience. To give you an idea of just how stark the contrast was, here are some of the views that participants shared on this area:

“If you’re interrupting, it’s showing an inability to listen – fine if you’re debating in the pub, not appropriate in an interview.”

“I want someone to be able to interrupt me if they are going into a client-facing role. That way I know they will do it with a client who might be going on and on, rather than just sitting there.”

“It tells me they are going to be disruptive in the company and in team meetings and will piss people off – I have had to turn people away for that before.

“Unless they have finished listening to what I’m saying, how can they understand it and respond properly? Sometimes they interrupt but, if they had listened, they would have realised I was coming to the point they wanted to address.” 

“Sometimes it’s a sign of enthusiasm. I actually trained myself to interrupt because I used to be told it was showing a lack of confidence when I didn’t. In company culture, we are trying to shift the way people interact, so it’s even more important.

This poses a real challenge for the candidate. How are you going to know which side of the fence your interviewer sits on, and how to act accordingly? Clearly, there is no golden rule and sometimes you will have to rely on instinct in the interview and your own judgement of whether you feel the person will be receptive to some interruption or not. But there is certainly a conscious balance to be met between listening and interrupting.

Sometimes you may just have to ask the question. “Do you mind if I cut in there?” and then be observant to how they respond. One thing that most participants did acknowledge, regardless of their preference, was that it all depends on how you interrupt, what you interrupt with and its relevance and how much you interrupt throughout the course of the interview. One of my participants even talked about how he sometimes deliberately interrupts candidates to see how they deal with the situation!

There are going to be many areas in which interviewers sit on either side of the fence and you aren’t going to know beforehand which side that is. It is important to listen and be observant and then to ask direct questions to test the waters a little. As long as the way in which you respond then takes what you learn into account, you are more than likely to reach a more successful result.

The other piece of the puzzle is how we say what we respond with. When we speak, it is for the benefit of others and we can get better at it by revealing who we are and connecting with who someone is. Sometimes we can make assumptions about how we think someone wants to hear something, but if that isn’t authentic to who we are, it doesn’t work and people tend to read straight through it.

Being responsive in a meaningful way is important too. If you find yourself in a position where you have interrupted your interviewer and they haven’t taken kindly to it, slow down a bit and soften the tone to ensure you aren’t mistaken for being aggressive. If you do need to interrupt, ensure it isn’t abrupt, but then be assertive when making your point to demonstrate your confidence that the point is relevant and timely.

The key is to be aware. Be aware that the situation could be perceived in two very different ways. And be aware of how your response to it is mindful of that. Once you are aware, you can take more control over how you say things and this will influence how both parties ultimately feel about whether or not the interaction was a healthy one.

How the interviewer determines whether you have the key qualities

We already know that voice and delivery can give rise to assumptions about the background, social class, education and attitude of a candidate. Participants of the study also felt that it was significant in determining a candidate’s level of confidence, enthusiasm and assertiveness.

Over 80% of participants said that voice and delivery was either ’Significant’ or ‘Very significant’ in influencing their perception of whether a candidate had these three qualities, after considering the various factors that could play a part in determining this. A huge 96% said voice and delivery would ‘Significantly’ or ‘Very significantly’ influence their perception of whether or not a candidate is confident. I wasn’t surprised by this particular statistic. Articulation is an art and people with confidence can really use their voice as a way to showcase that confidence.

Demonstrating confidence through the way you speak is, contrary to popular belief, not about having the loudest voice in the room or being the wittiest person in the circle. It’s quite the opposite. Firstly, you can demonstrate confidence by speaking less and listening more. People that are confident don’t necessarily feel the need to dominate a conversation because they don’t feel they have anything to prove. As a result, they can focus on the actual interaction, rather than seeing conversations as an opportunity to prove themselves. When you focus on the interaction, you are likely to be more responsive in a way that is truly relevant.

Secondly, when you do speak, you can demonstrate confidence through the level of certainty in your speech. For example, trying to avoid stock phrases or sentence fillers such as “to be honest”, “at the end of the day” or “ummm”. These are usually used because people have not spent enough time engaging in effective listening and require more time to think while they are speaking. And these phrases give them an opportunity to do that thinking. The problem is that it can make you sound less sure of what you’re saying. And it is difficult to get people to listen to you if you can’t deliver your ideas with conviction.

Although participants felt that sincerity and credibility did also come through in the voice, many commented on how these were more explicitly demonstrated through other areas. Sincerity, for example, can often come out more strongly in a candidate’s body language, their eye contact in particular. Credibility could be established through speech somewhat, but it was also having the content and credentials to back it up.

Punctuality, handshake and dress code were also factors of influence in determining key qualities. However, participants distinguished these as having a higher bearing on their perception at the beginning of the interview, but not necessarily continuing to carry that weight as an interview progresses, in the way that voice and delivery, body language and eye contact can.

Your voice is a useful tool in conveying the key qualities you have in a way that is subtle and authentic because it deals with connection. As Maya Angelou once said, people will forget what you said but they won’t forget how you made them feel. And your voice is an effective vehicle for delivering that feeling into any situation, when made consistent with your body language. As many of my participants commented, “if a candidate can convince me, they will be able to convince our clients.”

Closing thoughts

When it comes to hiring, and many areas outside of hiring too, I have realised that the voice really does operate in a hidden yet remarkable way. It has a very subconscious impact, both on the way the interviewer perceives the interviewee, but also in the way the interviewee reads the interviewer. It can determine how both parties feel about the interaction and their judgement of whether it was a good one. And yet we rarely attribute our feelings back to voice. A recurring comment from participants after completing the interview was about how they “didn’t think about it like that before”.

The way we speak can entice someone into wanting to learn more or it can make you want to conclude an interview in the minimum amount of time possible. And yet we don’t often make it a part of the criteria to hire or a component to test during an interview. It just continues to influence in the background and then we talk about it as a ‘feeling’ we had. That is not to say that voice and delivery is the only influencer of instinct, but to deny it as a significant one would be a miscalculation.

We can’t see a voice, but sometimes the power of the things you can’t see can be a formidable force.