I think anyone can do well in a phone interview if they're prepared, but what happens when you get an ambush call? I know some recruiters like to do this -- call you during the dinner hour when the kids are screaming and the meatloaf in burning and the dog has just eaten a sofa cushion. You scream, a "dammit!" into the phone as you step in dog barf (the dog didn't like the cushion so much) and suddenly your career is teetering on the abyss.
Be aware that no matter your level on the career ladder, a hiring manager or recruiter is not above pulling a stunt like this. To be prepared, here are some tips:
1. Set some ground rules. Children with less than stellar telephone-answering skills should be asked to refrain from answering the phone, unless they can tell from caller i.d. that's it's grandma. Don't answer the phone when you're in rush hour traffic or eating lunch. Call back when you can find a quiet place to talk.
2. Be prepared. Have copies of your resume and talking points nearby. Also have a file with you at all times that is organized with the correspondence needed to communicate with specific employers. Note the names of contacts so you won't fumble around searching for names in your memory banks.
3. Remember to breathe. Don't pick up the phone until you've taken and released a deep breath and you're away from a chaotic atmosphere.
4. Stay professional. While the recruiter may have called you at home, this is anything but a casual chat. Just because you're in your bunny slippers doesn't mean you should let down your guard and get too chummy or casual. Be wary if the call is on speaker phone -- you never know who else might be in the room.
5. Smile. It may ratchet up your anxiety to be caught unaware, but you need to be in a positive frame of mind for a surprise phone call. The simplest thing to do is smile -- the recruiter will actually hear it in your voice. If possible, also stand up so that your voice is coming from a stronger place.
What other tips do you have for unexpected phone interviews?
This is an updated version of a column that ran in 2011.