How to sound natural in English in your interview

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.

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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?

NO!!!

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.

Imagine this:

"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.

Be positive

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. 

  • Smile
  • Be friendly
  • Be polite
  • 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. 

 

Let's work together preparing for your interview so you get the job of your choice. Email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.

 

 

 

Is your polite English good enough for interviews?

There are two different levels of English, informal and formal. Another name for formal English is “polite” English.

How is the topic of polite English related to interviews?

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Why you need to use polite language in interviews

Your goal in an interview is to show that you’re the best person for the job.

Using polite language shows your interviewer that you: 

  • Are well educated
  • Have good manners

These two things make your interviewer think that you can:

  • Communicate
  • Negotiate
  • Build relationships with colleagues, partners, and customers

These are what are called “soft skills.”

Sometimes technical people think that they don’t need soft skills. The truth is, even if your job is technical you’ll still need to be able to communicate with your supervisor or colleagues.

Using polite English shows your interviewer that you have good soft skills. 

Test your polite English skills

Here’s an exercise that I use with clients to assess how polite their language is.

Polite English Exercise

The language in these sentences is direct and clear but not very polite/formal. Revise them so that the meaning is the same but the tone of the message is more polite.

1.    “Last month we sent you a form asking if you were interested in our services, but we haven’t heard back from you.”

Write down your politer answer.

Have you written down your answer? Write it down before you go on to the next paragraph.

Did your answer sound like this?

“We have been waiting to receive your response on whether you are interested in our services.”

The tone of this answer is actually more direct than the one in the example. Because it’s more direct, it’s actually less polite.

Here is a politer form of this example:

“We would like to follow up with you regarding our correspondence dated June 25th. We would truly appreciate receiving your reply regarding your interest in our services.

This is definitely politer than the original.

Your answer should sound something like this, although it doesn’t have to use those exact words. There are many ways to get the right level of politeness of English.

I'm not going to teach you polite English here because that's a complex topic, but if you need to learn or improve your polite English there are many resources.

Here are more example questions to test yourself:

2.    “I couldn’t complete your order because you failed to mention which size shirt you wanted.”

Write down a politer version.

This one has the same tone:

“Can you mention which size shirt you want so I can complete your order?”

In order to be polite it needs softening language.

This one is politer:

“I’m afraid I was not able to complete your order due to the lack of information regarding the size shirt.”

But it still isn’t very polite.

Here’s a good answer:

“I’m afraid I couldn’t complete your order. Could you please tell me which size shirt you’d like? Once I get that information, I’ll transmit the order right away. Thank you very much.”

3.    “Because there were more qualified candidates we didn’t keep your application.”

This statement is too honest.

This one uses different words but has the same tone:

“We could not consider your application as we had many qualified candidates.”

The next answer is better:

“Thank you for applying. I’m afraid that at this time we aren’t able to interview you, but we’ll keep you in mind for the future.”

This doesn’t actually say they rejected the application, although it implies it. If you don't say the bad news directly, it's more polite.

4.    “We’re sorry that we have no more rooms available for Labor Day weekend.”

This version is much politer:

“We regret to inform you that we are fully booked for the Labor Day weekend and we cannot accommodate you during this time frame. We apologize for the inconvenience caused and hope to see you soon.”

5.    “The only reason you don’t do well at your job is because you don’t work hard enough.”

Ouch, too direct!

This is also too direct:

“You need to put more effort in and bring out your A game!”

This is also too direct:

If you work hard enough, you will do well in your job.

Remember, we’re trying to use formal English, which means you’re talking to someone who is not your friend but more likely a colleague or an employee.

This is better:

“I’m sorry you’re not doing well at your job. Do you have any idea why? Do you think you might not be working hard enough?”

This is still a difficult subject to talk about. The most polite thing to do is to not discuss it at all, but you may need to discuss something like this at work. If you need to have the discussion this is a better way to phrase it.

6.    “It’s a very important meeting. I want to make a good impression with the client. Try not to say anything wrong like you did at the last meeting.”

Too direct! Being this direct makes you sound mean and insulting.

This is better:

“The upcoming meeting is going to be very important for us and we need to make a positive impression with the client. We should review our talking points before the meeting to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

7.    “Your department is doing a terrible job with sales. Can’t you get more customers?”

This statement is too direct. It needs to be softened.

This one is better:

“The sales results from your department weren’t good last quarter, as I’m sure you’re aware. Have you given any thought to ways you can get more customers?“

-

This was a short test to see how polite your English is. If you're going to an interview, you need to make sure you can use the polite version of the language.  

If you failed the test, you should review your polite English. If you aren't sure how you did, can email me your answers and I can let you know. 

Let's work together preparing for your interview so you get the job of your choice. Email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.

How to improve your accent before an interview

You can’t succeed in an interview unless the interviewer understands you.

You may have years of professional experience and industry knowledge but if you can’t communicate this to your interviewer they won’t know about it.

How to improve your accent before an interview

You can succeed in an interview if you have an accent

You may be worried that your accent will keep you from succeeding in an interview situation, but that isn't true.

If you have an accent, you can succeed at your interview, but there are a few things to consider.

How strong is your accent?

Most of my international coaching clients worry too much about their accents.

It’s perfectly okay to have an accent.

The question you want to ask is, how strong is your accent?

Slight (small) accent

If you have a slight accent, it won’t be a problem in your interview.

I know you may be self-conscious about the way you speak, and you may have gotten some comments about it in the past, but as long as it isn’t interfering with listener comprehension you should be okay.

One of my clients told me he had gotten complaints about the way he said “development.” I hadn’t noticed anything so I asked him to say the word for me. Yes, he did have an Indian accent but it was easily comprehensible and I had absolutely no trouble understanding the word.

It was a shame that an American had made him self-conscious about his pronunciation, and I apologize on behalf of my fellow Americans because we can be pretty rude.

A note about Americans and accents: Most Americans don’t study foreign languages and don’t interact with foreigners often, so we’re not great at understanding or dealing with accents. The ones who work at tech companies get more experience.

Do people understand you when you speak English? If yes then your accent isn’t a problem.

It doesn’t matter if your accent is different than your interviewer’s, as long as they can understand you

Strong accent

What if you do have a strong accent?

If you do have a stronger accent there are some things you can do to improve the chance that your interviewer will understand you.

How to improve your accent before your interview

Here are some tips for improving your accent before you go into your interview. 

1.   Work with an accent coach

You can work with an accent coach, and I’m happy to refer you to a good one (I don’t do accent coaching myself).

I realize that accent coaching is expensive, so if you can’t work with one long-term, I advise having a consultation/evaluation. A good accent coach will do an evaluation of your accent and pinpoint your specific problems. They will then give you a learning plan with things you can fix on your own (and give you ideas of resources).

I don’t advise trying to improve your accent without getting an evaluation, because it’s hard to know what your own problems are.

The problem is, however, that accent coaching is a long-term (or at least longer term) project. You probably have an interview coming up soon if you’re reading this book.

If you do have at least a month before your interview, congratulations! You’ve planned ahead and you do have time to work on your accent with a coach. Email me and I can let you know the name of my favorite accent coach.

Most of you probably don’t have that much time, so I’m going to give you a few suggestions of things you can learn quickly and incorporate into your interview prep on your own.

2.   Is it your accent or theirs?

 Although you may go into the interview worried about your own accent, you might actually have a problem understanding your interviewer’s accent. Most people are so focused on worrying about their own performance they never think of this possibility.

Even though you might be interviewing in an American company, there may be quite a few people working there who weren’t born in America.

What should you do if this happens to you in your interview?

You can’t ignore it if you’re having a problem answering the questions, because you can’t answer a question you don’t understand. I know you might want to ignore it if you’re worried about being rude, but you need to say something.

Be polite but direct. Say to them, “I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble understanding you. Would you please slow down?”  Or “Could you please repeat the question?”

Hopefully this will solve the problem and they will then repeat the question.

Worst case scenario is that you don’t understand them the second time, or they ignore you. Unfortunately, both of these things might happen. What should you do if it does?

Ask them to repeat the question again. You can also say that you’re sorry but you don’t understand their accent.

You need to be clear that you don’t understand them, because you can’t interview if you don’t understand the questions

This might be a test

If the team you’ll be working closely with are people who are often difficult to understand they might test you to see how you handle the interaction.

If you ignore the problem you might fail the interview because they’ll see you couldn’t communicate with them anyway. Of course, you’ll probably fail because you won’t be able to answer the questions.

Ask the interviewer to repeat words and have them spell them if they don’t make sense.

You don’t need to feel self-conscious if you do have this problem, because this is actually a common occurrence in tech companies.

3.   Slow down

Many non-native English speakers think that speaking fast will help them sound smarter and more fluent.

I often do mock interviews with clients and they give their answers so quickly that I can’t understand them at all. But then, when they slow down, the same answer is totally clear.

Speaking fast:

  • increases your pronunciation mistakes
  • decreases clarity
  • makes you sound nervous or self-conscious

These aren’t good things in an interview.

Slow down and your words will be much easier to comprehend.

This will help Americans and other non-native speakers understand you.

4.   Say technical words clearly

You should try to say all of your words clearly, but be especially clear with key words – technical words, acronyms, names of companies, etc.

For example, the company name is the most important word in this sentence, “I worked at Mitsubishi for 6 years.”

I gave you that example because I had a client who worked there, and I couldn’t understand him when he said the name of the company.

Another example is “AWS.” I get a lot of clients who are applying to AWS and I ask them to answer the question “Why do you want to work at AWS?”

Many of them have a hard time with the “W” but unfortunately if you’re applying to a company with a “W” in the name you need to be able to say “W.”

You may think you are saying the name of your company correctly because you say it every day, but you should test your pronunciation on someone else.

5.   Speak up

Do you speak quietly because you’re not confident in your English?

Do you speak very softly all the time?

Do you speak at a normal volume but then “skip” a word you don’t know how to pronounce?

Don’t do this. Speak in your normal tone of voice.

This advice will be particularly useful for Asians, who tend to speak more softly than Americans.

It's definitely possible to succeed in an interview if you have an accent, especially if you practice with some of these tips.

 

Let's work together preparing for your interview so you get the job of your choice. Email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.

Don't use filler words and phrases in your interview

Recently I worked with a client who was a Solutions Architect. He had good experience and was getting interviews, and he answered interview questions well. He sounded like someone any company would want to hire, except for one thing – when he spoke he said “um” constantly.

Although his other interview skills were good, the “um’s” made him sound unprofessional.

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Using filler words in interviews is unprofessional

Do you use filler words?

Do you have the same problem my client had?

If you have a good resume that gets you interviews, but you have a problem doing well in the interview, is it because you speak unprofessionally?

How you sound is just as important as your experience and education.

What are filler words?

A filler word is a word that doesn’t mean anything and is just used to fill space.

Examples of filler words:

um, uh, er, ah

There are also words or phrases that do mean something but are also often used as fillers.

Examples of words that can be used as fillers:

like, you know, okay, right, well, really, so, right, I mean

Do you use any of these? I’m embarrassed to admit how many of them I use when talking to my friends. I try not to use them when I’m in professional situations though, and sometimes I succeed.

How many filler words is it okay to use?

I recommend interviewees use no more than one filler word per minute of speech.

I realize this isn’t very many and it may be hard for you to cut it down to this, but you need to if you’re going to succeed in your interview.

Filler words are bad

Filler words make you sound childlike and not smart.

Filler words also make you sound like you don’t have self-confidence.

You don’t want to sound dumb, insecure, or childlike in your interview — you want to sound the opposite of those things.

Non-native English speakers should avoid filler words

Often people whose English isn’t perfect use filler words because they can’t think of the English word they need.

If you’re a non-native English speaker, you may already have an accent or imperfect English.

Using filler words can make it harder for your listener to understand you.

You want your interviewer to understand you.

You can’t make your English perfect in a few days because that’s a long-term goal, but you can work on your use of filler words in the few days or weeks before your interview.

How to reduce the number of filler words you use

Okay, so you agree that filler words are bad and you don’t want to use them. How do you stop, or at least use fewer of them?

1.   Learn whether you use filler words

You may already know you use fillers, but if you don’t, make an audio or video recording of yourself.

Then listen to/watch the recording. Count the use of filler words.

Do you use them more than once every minute? If so, you have a filler word problem.

2. Understand which filler words you use and where you use them

This may be easy and it may not be.

I seem to use quite a few filler words in different circumstances so it isn’t easy to say what my pattern is.

 I use “you know” at the ends of sentences; I use “uh” and “um” in the middle of sentences; I’ve also started using the word “literally” a lot, which is a trend with American women; I also use “like” when it isn’t needed, which is common with Americans, unfortunately.

I hope it’s easier for you to figure out your filler pattern because you don’t use as many fillers as I do.

But this step is definitely necessary because you can’t stop a habit if you don’t know what it is.

3. See the filler word coming

If your pattern is to say “you know” at the end of every sentence, pay attention when your sentences are ending.

If you know when you’re going to say it, you can prepare not to say it.

4. Use a pause instead of a filler word

Instead of using a filler word, just say nothing.

If you usually say “I mean” at the beginning of every sentence, say nothing instead. Just leave an empty space.

It sounds strange to you, but other people won’t notice it because the time will be so short.

Succeed in your interview by avoiding fillers

If you go through this process and continue to practice, you can stop using filler words.

When you eliminate fillers, your speech will be more effective and you will be more likely to succeed in your interview.

Let's work together preparing for your interview so you get the job of your choice. Email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.

English verb tenses for interviews

One of the most common things that happens with clients is that they tell me about something they did at their last job and they use the present tense. 

It drives me crazy, not because I really care about grammar, but because it's hard to focus on the content if the grammar is wrong. That's why I tell my clients they really have to get their verb tenses right.

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In any admissions or job interview, you'll need to talk about (1) your past experience, (2) what you're doing now, and (3) what you plan to do. That's the past, the present, and the future.

Before your interview, review the right verb tenses in English to talk about these three time periods.

Overview of verb tenses to use in an interview

1. Use Simple Past to talk about the past

In interviews you're going to be talking about what you did in the past, right? You might have to talk about what you did last summer, or what your favorite class was, or where you went to school, or what you studied, or what you did in your last job, or the last project you worked on.

You can use the Simple Past tense to talk about those things. This is the most common tense to use when speaking about past experience.

Example sentences:

  • I studied English in high school.
  • I got an A in algebra last year.
  • I was #3 in my class freshman year. 
  • I worked at Siemens as a Finance Manager and then I moved to Nokia. 
  • I became a manager after 2 years.
  • I created my first website in 2006.
  • I developed an in-house database for the HR department.
  • Just last week I finished a database for our warehouse.
  • I completed the project under budget and 3 months ahead of schedule.

2. Use Present Simple or Present Continuous to talk about now

In interviews you're going to be talking about what you do right now. You might have to talk about what classes you're taking, or what degree you're getting, or where you work, or what your day-to-day responsibilities are, or what research you're doing.

You can use the Simple Present tense to talk about fixed habits or routines — things that don't change.

Example sentences:

  • I work at O'Reilly Media.
  • I go to Haverford.
  • I'm a Bio major.
  • I collect data from all of our branches and analyze the information on a weekly basis.
  • I manage a team of front-end developers.
  • I am  the number 1 salesman in my region.
  • I am the lead project manager on the redesign of a trading platform used by 4,000 investment managers at my company.
  • I'm usually responsible for staff organization and office management.
  • I create and maintain the quarterly sales reports.

You can use the Present Continuous tense to talk about actions that are happening at the present moment, but will finish soon.

Example sentences: 

  • Currently, we're expanding our sales division to include South America.
  • I'm designing a new layout for our local branch.
  • I am working on a project for our Senior Partner.
  • I'm writing a presentation for a conference next month.

Usually in an interview when you talk about what you are doing now you are going to use a mix of these two tenses.

3. Use Future Simple or Present Continuous to talk about your plans for the future

You can use the Future Simple to answer questions like "What is your five year plan?" or "What do you plan to do after you graduate?" This is the tense I advise you to use if your English is average or below average because it's the easiest. 

Example sentences:

  • In 5 five years I will be the manager of a medium-sized retail outlet.
  • My long-term plan is that in 2 years I will be in a Master's program and 2 years after that I will be in a Ph.D. program.

You can also use Present Continuous to talk about experiences in the future. 

Example sentences:

  • Once I gain additional experience, I am planning to move from my technical position into a managerial role.
  • In the future, I am going to grow with a company where I can continue to learn, take on additional responsibilities, and contribute as much value as I can. 

This was a just a quick overview; I wasn't trying to teach you grammar because I assume you've already learned that.

This was more of a reminder to you that you need to use tenses properly when you're interviewing because if you don't you will force the interviewer to focus on your grammar and not your skills. 

Does your English need to be perfect to interview? No, it doesn't, but using the wrong tenses is one of the worst English mistakes you can make, so it's best if you can avoid that.

How to discuss your education in an interview (including tenses) 

I hope this post helped you understand the English tenses to use in your interview. If you want to practice, ask me for one-on-one interview prep. 

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching international students and professionals. You can email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a consultation.