Many clients tell me that they worry about sounding natural in interviews.
It’s common for non-native English speakers to worry about their English — including their grammar, their sentence structure, and also whether they sound comfortable and natural when they speak.
If you’re going to an interview in English, you probably have an intermediate English level or above, but you might still worry about how you’ll sound.
You might be comfortable with your English in most situations but be more worried about your interview because, as you know, interviews are special situations that require good conversational English.
How to improve your conversational English so you sound natural
Learning English isn’t something you can do over night. Sounding natural in English also takes time.
If you have a solid intermediate level in English, you can begin to work on sounding like native speakers, in other words, sounding “natural.”
Long-term way to sound more natural in English
Work with an English teacher
The best way to learn to sound natural is with an English teacher, because to improve your conversation skills you need to have conversations with someone, preferably someone who can point out your mistakes.
If you’d like to know a good English teacher who specializes in sounding natural and conversational English, let me know and I’ll give you the name of someone I trust.
BUT, if you have an interview soon, you probably don’t have time to work with a teacher.
Short-term tips for sounding more natural in interviews
I assume you’re reading this because you do have an interview soon, so I’m going to give you some tips that you can use in the short term. You can add them to your interview prep.
Don't read your answers in phone interviews
If you have a phone interview, you’re probably excited because you think it will be easier.
You probably made a list of possible questions and wrote answers to them so you can read them aloud.
After all, they can't see you, so why not?
Do not do this. If you read your answers, you'll sound like a robot.
Sounding natural is your goal (actually you need to sound natural, smart, and professional).
So what should you do?
Practice your answers enough so that you don't need to read them. You can use notes, but don't read word for word.
Your interviewer will know when you're reading.
Reading makes your interviewer believe you can’t think on your feet. It makes them think you can’t have a normal conversation without notes.
Don’t memorize your answers
Preparing your answers is good, but sometimes people prepare so much they memorize their answers. This gives the same effect as reading them — a robotic tone.
Have you prepared too much?
If you’ve prepared a lot, you may have prepared too much.
Are you Chinese? Are you Asian? Are you Indian?
Over-preparers tend to be Chinese or Indian.
If you’re Chinese or Indian (or Asian), ask someone to listen to your answers so they can give you feedback on whether you sound natural.
In my experience, people who’ve practiced so much they’ve memorized their answers don’t know that they’ve done this.
Ask for feedback, preferably from a native speaker.
Use a conversational tone
When you’re talking to your interviewer you want to sound like you're talking to a friend, not reading out loud — not like a robot.
You will be able to sound more conversational if you don’t read your notes, if you prepare without memorizing your answers, and if you speak conversationally.
What do I mean by speaking conversationally?
Here's an example of the beginning of a response to the question, "Tell me about yourself.”
"I’m from Xiamen, which is in the west of China. I’m a senior at Xiamen University, one of the best engineering schools in China. I’m majoring in Chemical Engineering.”
Okay, now try reading this aloud.
Did you read it with the same emphasis on each word? Most people do.
The problem with that is that all words sound the same. This is called monotone, which means “same tone.”
Listen to yourself when you talk to a friend. You emphasize different words in the sentence, meaning you say some words in a louder voice.
When we’re having a casual conversation we naturally stress some words more.
You either need to learn to read so that you sound natural (for phone interviews), or you need to stop reading and just speak normally, without notes.
Pretend you’re talking to a friend.
If you’re speaking normally, like you would in a conversation with a friend, you’ll probably emphasize these words:
"I’m from Xiamen, which is in the west of China. I’m a senior at Xiamen University, one of the best engineering schools in China. I’m majoring in Chemical Engineering."
This example sounds natural since some words are emphasized more than others.
Many people who speak in a monotone don’t know they’re doing this.
Ask for feedback from a native speaker.
Copy your interviewer
Listen to how your interviewer is speaking and copy them.
If your interviewer speaks loudly and your voice is quiet, you need to be louder than normal.
If your interviewer speaks very softly and your natural voice is loud, speak more quietly.
If your interviewer speaks slowly and you talk quickly, you need to slow down.
Matching their speed and volume will make them feel more comfortable with you.
Don't talk too much
Some people worry about not having anything to say in an interview. Yes, that can be a problem, but I think a bigger one is talking too much.
Your answers should be about 1 to 2 minutes. Any more and you are boring the interviewer.
If you structure your answer correctly, you can deliver enough information quickly.
I talk more about this in the interview question section.
If you are in sales or a sales-adjacent position, like biz dev, you probably have a tendency to talk more than necessary. I’m not saying this to be rude, I’m saying it to warn you that talking a lot is okay in real life but not so great in interviews.
Don't raise your voice at the end of a sentence
It's common for people to raise their voice at the end of a sentence.
This is normal if you're asking a question.
"Are you hungry?" If you say this correctly the end of "hungry" is in a higher tone than the beginning. This is how we indicate something is a question in English.
However, if you're not asking a question, you don't want to sound like you are.
"Do you know how to lead a project?"
"Yes, I've led several projects?"
If you raise your voice on the last word it makes the sentence sound like a question. You don't want to ask a question, you want to make a statement.
This is a common thing with younger people, but I also notice people who are not young doing it as well.
I know you might be nervous at an interview and so you might not feel like you're happy or comfortable. However, you have to try to smile, be friendly, show that you're interested in the job, and use positive words when you answer questions.
This applies to phone interviews as well.
Show interest – You know you want the job, but have you told them?
Don't be negative – People want to work with or go to school with happy, friendly people, not ones who say negative things about their colleagues and bosses.
Some of these tips only apply to non-native English speakers, but most can help you even if English is your native language.
I’m happy to say that after working with me, my clients, who range from entry level to executive level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted.
If you’d like to work with me to prepare for your interview, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free 15 minute consultation or a full interview prep session.
Interview Genie is an American interview prep company specializing in interviews at American companies.