How to Handle a Telephone Interview
Writers have a reputation for being reclusive, phone-haters. Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s true for me. I hate it. To me, the phone is for talking with family, friends and the computer repair guy. Conversations with strangers over the phone unnerve me – particularly when I’m interviewing a source. I find myself speaking in a strange, high-pitched voice that both irritates and distracts me. And I stammer. A lot.
The internet has made it easy for Haters like me to avoid the telephone: we can conduct the bulk of our research with a few clicks of the mouse, and interview hoity-toity experts without saying a word. But by shunning telephone interviews, we Haters might be doing ourselves a disservice.
The ability to conduct a good telephone interview is a crucial part of journalistic writing. When working on profiles, complicated subjects, or any article that would benefit from spontaneous responses or insight into the source’s character, the interview should be (if not face-to-face) by telephone. If we constantly find excuses to avoid these kinds of interviews, we’ll never perfect the necessary interviewing techniques and may flounder when a phone interview is essential. Worse, we may develop the habit of convincing ourselves that a telephone job interview isn’t really necessary, even when secretly we know that such an interview might result in better work.
Grudgingly, I’ve begun doing more telephone interviews – and have found that, with a little preventive damage control, it’s not so bad. Here are a telephone interview techniques you can use to lessen your phone dread:
Thoroughly research your source
In addition to being good practice generally, getting as much information as possible on the source before an interview may help you feel more comfortable chatting with him or her on the phone. Search your expert’s name on the internet to find out their reputation, past and current titles, where they have been published, and why this person is the perfect source for your article. If you’re interviewing a non-expert source, send a quick preliminary email asking a few background questions (name, location, profession, etc.), as well as a few soft questions about the subject of your interview. You can then go into your chat with some inkling your source’s personality and foreknowledge about what he or she will say.
Know your subject
You will feel more confident on the telephone if you go into the interview aware of current research, studies, or professional chatter on your chosen topic. If you skimp on your research, you’re more likely to feel out of your depth when you talk to Dr. Big Shot.
Prepare questions in advance
Sure, we all know this one – but it bears repeating since having a list of written questions in front of you as you talk can be very reassuring. Cross off the questions as you raise them, but don’t stick exclusively to the script: the major advantage of a telephone interview over an email interview is the ability to immediately follow-up on your sources’ responses.
Have an opening shtick
If you find beginning of the interview the most awkward part, you may feel more ease if you develop a standard opening to use for all interviews. I always start by introducing myself, thanking the person for agreeing to speak with me, and then saying something like, “Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so shall we dive right in?” For me, this approach works since whenever I try to engage in a bit of small talk at the outset (supposedly to loosen the interviewee up), I end up feeling more awkward than ever. My sources have never seemed bothered by my directness –most likely because the interview is, after all, the reason why we two strangers are on the telephone in the first place. That said, if small talk is your thing, go for it! Have a brief, tongue-loosening chat, and then segue into the interview.
Limit the length of call
Even if you have all the time in the world to yak with your source, you may want to establish a time limit for the call at the outset of your talk. That way, if you end up with a Garrulous George, you have a built-in excuse for gently interrupting his flow, and putting the interview back on track. Be realistic about the amount of time that you will need, however. Your source won’t thank you if you keep saying “just one more question” ten minutes past the time you allotted for the interview.
Use Skype for interviews
Using Skype to conduct interviews is a happy alternative to using the telephone. For one thing, if both you and your source have video capability, it’s as close to a face-to-face interview as you can get. For another thing, Skype offers a free MP3 recorder, which automatically records conversations as soon as they begin. More and more of my sources have Skype and no one has ever objected to using the service for an interview. But remember: ask your source’s permission to record the interview in advance of your conversation – you don’t want to get into any legal troubles.
So, that’s what I do to survive phone interviews. What do you do?