Phone interviews give you quicker, easier access to sources, no matter where they are, and with far less expense. According to telemarketing stats, an average telephone sales call costs $15 compared to $230 for an average business-to-business field call, a ratio roughly applicable to journalistic interviews as well.
The biggest drawback, of course, is loss of visual clues that tell you how the interview is going. You cannot see the subject’s eyes flicker with discomfort or light up with enthusiasm in response to a question. This negative can become a positive for the shy interviewer, however, providing a kind of confidence not available when doing face-to-face interviews. Another advantage is that you can have materials spread out all around your desk: reference works, statistics, notes from other interviews.
Here are eight tips and tactics for getting the most out of your own phone sessions:
- Clear the line. If you share a line with others in the office, tell them you are doing an interview. No interruptions. Turn off call waiting (*70). Never keep anyone on hold for more than 30 seconds.
- You need more prospects, more topics. If you need to do three interviews for a story, have an array of nine or ten prospects in your initial round of calls. We know from telemarketers that people are away from their phones at a 3:1 ratio. On the phone, you must talk faster and cover more ground than you would in person; yet you must also go in small steps. Have a list of topics you want to cover and tell the subject what the topics are at the outset.
- Be prepared for the instant interview. Occasionally, when phoning to set up an interview, the subject says something like, "I’m leaving for three weeks in the Yukon tomorrow. Can we do this now?" Your response, of course, is: "Absolutely." Then do an instant interview.
- Advise you are recording. If the subject doesn’t want to be recorded, you can often overcome resistance by pointing out that it is in her or his best interest: "I’m recording our conversation so that I can listen to it again and be one-hundred percent accurate." Caution: Secret tape recordings are not only unethical in the writing trade, but in most states, laws prohibit the tapping of a telephone line without the consent of all parties using the phone.
- Agree on the length of the interview. Subjects do not usually like lengthy open-ended conversations on the phone. Establish up front how long you will be on the phone;twenty minutes, half an hour, whatever;and put the subject at ease with your timetable. Then stick to it.
- Take notes, including a tape index. Using a head set will not only alleviate you from neck stress; it also frees your hands to take great notes on the keyboard and start a file for your story. As the interview progresses, create an index of topics keyed to the tabulator on your recorder: 125: discussion of decision to sell the company210: story of meeting business partner355: budget plans for next decade This will enable you to return to key tales and topics without having to go through the whole interview on hunt-and-search mission.
- Don’t leave your own interview. On the phone, it’s easy to do other things while the subject talks on (and on). Avoid giving in to visual distractions.
- You’ve got to have a closer. Usually, a simple "Well, it’s been good talking with you," will get you off the phone. Occasionally, you will encounter the longwinded interviewee who is far too happy to talk, and talk, and talk. As a last result, knock four times loudly on your desk. "Mr. Hagedorn, someone’s at my door," is your exit line. "I’ll get back to you if I need any additional material."
Then it’s on to your next interview;by phone, of course.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.