The Art of the Phone Interview

Phone interviews present the unique challenge of communicating your enthusiasm and relevant experiences without the benefits of eye contact, body language, dressing to impress, and a hearty handshake. However, the phone interview is often a critical part of the hiring process that will determine the fate of your candidacy.  The following article walks you through the phases of the phone interview and shares a collection of insider tips that can help propel you to the next stages of the interview process.

Before the Interview

  • Acknowledge the importance of the phone interview. Being invited to a phone interview does not mean that you are not good enough for an in person interview.  Because nonprofits are often stretched for time, many organizations have adopted the phone interview as the initial stage of the interview process.  This means that hiring managers have decided that the phone interview is a decision point concerning an applicant’s status.  If you do not treat it as an important step, the hiring manager interviewing you will not treat you as an important candidate.
  • Respect the scheduling process. Treat all pre-interview communications with your interviewer as opportunities to demonstrate your competency and decorum. Following directions is extremely important and will show your interviewer that you respect their processes. Also, make yourself available during normal work hours.  Asking an interviewer to be available at 9pm for an interview will translate as being disrespectful of the interviewer’s personal life. If the interviewer explains that the conversation should last 20-30 minutes, be prepared to tailor your answers to fit within that time slot.  Simple considerations and following directions demonstrates to the interviewer that you pay attention to details and are considerate of the hiring process.
  • Research the organization and the position.Though it may seem unthinkable, we regularly have conversations with candidates who have not done their homework about the position to which they are applying.  In the week(s) before your interview, visit the organization’s website and search the web for articles to gain an understanding of the nonprofit’s programs and learn about its history. Additionally, read the job description closely and prepare questions if you need components of the job description better explained.  Prepare bullet-points that explain a specific example of a time that you fulfilled a qualification required for the role.  Citing specific examples from your previous work experience will make your phone interview more memorable for the interviewer.
  • Prepare thoughtful questions and a final statement in advance. As a candidate, you can always expect the phone interview to conclude with the interviewer asking if you have any final questions.  Asking thoughtful questions at the end of an interview gives the interviewee an opportunity to show some critical thinking skills. However, coming up with thoughtful questions during an interview can be extremely difficult, so prepare your queries before the call.  Additionally, prepare in advance a quick ten second personal pitch for why you are the right person for the job. Doing so will help you clarify your motives for applying and will put you in a confident frame of mind for the interview.
  • Take control of your environment. When the phone rings for your interview, you should be relaxed and have everything prepared that will make you sound calm and professional.  Find a quiet, isolated place for the interview well in advance of the phone call.  When you are pitching yourself over the phone, you want your interviewer to focus on your words.  Background noise will distract you and your interviewer and lead to increased frustration and tension on the line. To completely mitigate the negative effects of miscommunication, find a landline to make the call. Nothing can kill the flow of a conversation more than a dropped call or a bad connection. If your only phone is your mobile, conduct the phone interview in a location that historically has great reception for your phone.

During the Call

  • Be enthusiastic. Your first impression on the phone is extremely important. A great way to nail the first impression is to sound happy, friendly and enthusiastic about the conversation.  Communicating excitement for the opportunity will demonstrate to the interviewer that you are someone who has passion and optimism.  A tactic to naturally sound more enthusiastic is to stand during the phone call.  Standing up allows more oxygen to flow through your airways, making your voice sound more energized and robust.
  • Remember that your interviewer is taking notes. As you speak, your interviewer is most likely taking notes.  S/he will need some record of the conversation either for his/her recollection or to be able to effectively share your candidacy with other members of the staff.  Speak clearly and at a reasonable pace.
  • Stay focused. As you are asked questions, jot the question down.  Tell your interviewer that you are going to do this, so s/he does not think you are pausing to do something unrelated to the interview. Writing the question will help to keep your answer focused and concise.  If you are starting to stray off topic, being able to visualize the question can help you stay on topic. If you need more time to answer the question, request some time to reflect so you can give the best answer. Also, do not multitask during the interview. An interviewer will be able to tell if you are distracted. Sharing time between the interview and driving, surfing the web, cooking, or walking home from work will communicate that you are not completely interested in the position.
  • Communicate a balance of passion and experience. The interviewer wants to hear that you are passionate about the mission of the organization, but s/he also wants to hear examples of how you have demonstrated your passion in past experiences.  Remember that the interviewer has committed his/herself to the mission of the organization and therefore wants to hear that you (as a potential co-worker) will share in the passion for the given mission.  At the same time, they want to know that they will be hiring someone whose skills match the passion. Giving concrete examples of past experiences and skills that are transferable is extremely important. Providing a philosophical/ethical foundation for why you want to work for the mission is also vital to the success of the phone interview.
  • Be honest about your salary requirements. If the conversation turns to the topic of salary, be honest about your requirements for the role.  If the interviewer shares the expected range it is most likely the case that the range will not drastically change during the hiring process. Deflating your requirements so that you are moved forward in the process will result in wasted time and will reflect poorly on you as a job seeker. Therefore, if it is impossible for you to accept the stated salary range, take yourself out of consideration and keep looking for other opportunities.
  • Close strong. As important as your first impression is, so is your last impression. After asking one or two thoughtful questions at the end of your conversation, thank the interviewer for their time and reiterate your enthusiasm for the role.  This is where you throw in the ten second final pitch that you prepared before the interview. Making a powerful and concise closing statement will leave a lasting impression on your interviewer.

After the Phone Interview

  • Write thank you notes. Within 24 hours of your phone interview, send a quick thank you via email.  Keep it simple and thank the interviewer for the opportunity to converse about the position.  This quick gesture will be appreciated.  Within the week after your phone interview, it is still very appropriate to write a hand written thank you note. For some hiring managers, receiving this gesture of appreciation could translate into a strong candidate becoming the front runner for the role.
  • Manage the frequency of your follow-up. They say that patience is a virtue and this is extremely true during the interview process.  Because nonprofit organizations are frequently strapped for time and resources, the people making hiring decisions might not be as speedy with getting back to you about your candidacy as you might like. Checking in about one’s status with too much frequency can turn a strong candidate into an annoying candidate. Be mindful and respectful of the time frames promised by the interviewer.  If s/he says it will take two weeks for you to hear from them, do not contact them before that two week time frame. It is reasonable to touch base with the hiring manager or interviewer if after the stated time frame you still have not been notified. 

The phone interview can make the difference between moving ahead in the hiring process or checking your candidacy at the door. With careful preparation and a positive attitude, you can sail through the phone interview and emerge as a strong candidate for the role.


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org