Conquering the Phone Interview: 7 tips for journalists

Long before I hunted for interviews as a journalist, phone calls created anxiety and sometimes near panic. Whether I was mustering up the courage to call a girl in my high school class or spilling the beans to my parents about a bad grade on a college exam, the telephone felt like it only created awkward moments and shame. But as a budding journalist, I see the need to abandon my hang-ups about phone interviews and pick up some essentials from experts in the field.

What challenges arise with a phone call? As an interviewer, it’s harder to make the interviewee comfortable over the phone. Chit chat with a stranger isn’t as natural without eye contact and hand gestures. The small talk we use in person (“Do you come to this coffee shop often?” “Isn’t that a neat painting!”) doesn’t work; there’s no common ground when a ringing phone is picked up. But that doesn’t mean the conversation has to be uncomfortable. In his article “The Phone Interview Lives, and Why That’s a Good Thing,” public relations blogger Clay Zeigler wrote, “The telephone allows for a level of detail, clarification and nuance not possible with other electronic methods.” Though an in person interview might be ideal, the phone is a close second.

I’m presently putting together a long-form broadcast piece about the death of a Jonny Hollywood, a wrestling manager in Pensacola, Florida. My key sources live there (or even as far away as California and Texas), so the phone has proven essential. I’ve had some bumps in the road so far, but for the most part, I’ve managed use strong phone interview strategies to find dimensions to the story I hadn’t foreseen.

Keep these factors in mind to get the most out of a phone interview:

1. Be prepared: Dan Rather wrote twenty questions prior to every interview he conducted. Like a good Boy Scout, I make sure I have far more questions than I need going into an interview. Phone silence is more awkward than in person silence because the person on the other end may wonder if the connection split up. Plus, a lot of “ums” from a reporter working his head around the next question will create a sense of unprofessionalism.

I created a list of about twenty questions when I interviewed Jonny’s best friend. I knew his would be a crucial interview to the story, so I planned ahead for follow ups. The interview didn’t go as I planned (I needed to jump to some late questions early on), so I crossed off questions as I asked them. By the end, I got some form of all my questions answered and then some.

2. Start Right: For interviews in every format, it’s crucial for journalists to get permission to use the content prior to the interview (or the process could be a royal waste of time). Also, the first questions need to get crucial information like full name (spelled correctly), age, location, and occupation. From there the interviewer needs to get permission to record the interview and must provide a rough idea of what the story’s focus will be. Following that, easy and comfortable questions are best to create trust between the interviewer and the interviewee.

Sometimes this doesn’t go according to plan. In my interview with Jonny’s best friend, I made clear the goal of the piece I was writing. Immediately after I did that, my interviewee launched into story after story about Jonny without being prompted. After each one he said, “Is this the kind of thing you wanted?” I said it was, but I had to be assertive in order to gain control.

3. Be empathetic: It’s crucial, especially when creating a news story on a difficult issue such as a death, to use an empathetic voice on the phone and avoid asking questions that reflect a lack of understanding.

Katie Couric acknowledged that being a gracious host made the interviewee respond better than being pushy. “The more comfortable you make someone feel, the better interview you’re going to get,” Couric said.

My interviews on Jonny Hollywood turned emotional when the subject of his suicide came up, and I found that I had to welcome that sadness with short verbal cues that I understood their pain. More than anything, I did feel sad, and I hope that empathy carried over.

4. Record the call: Taking notes during an interview can hinder a reporter from getting a great follow up, so use the phone to record the interview for later transcription. I downloaded an app on my phone called TapeACall, which records entire phone conversations and makes them available for download. The app costs $9.99, and has been an invaluable tool, especially for interviews that last over thirty minutes.

5. Use silence: Carl Bernstein of the famous Woodward and Bernstein reporting team said, “Great reporters are great listeners.” This is especially true when conducting interviews on the phone. In his Press Gazette article titled  “Using Silence is a Powerful Interview Tactic,” journalist Nick Davies said, “If you can force yourself to stay quiet, you may well force the other person to talk.”

During my interview with Jonny Hollywood’s ex-girlfriend, she began crying when she described how close he was to asking her to marry him. I said, “take your time,” and let her cry before she entered back into the story on her own. An attempt to console her might have turned into “you don’t have to talk about it,” which would have derailed the story. By using as few words as possible, I allowed the story to materialize.

Because my story is going to be a piece for broadcast, I needed to avoid saying, “uh huh,” during the stories I was hearing. I’m used to making these audial clues in person to show that I’m listening, but I didn’t want my voice interrupting the flow of a finished story.

6. Ask tough questions with grace: BBC reporters created a video describing their technique of allowing an interviewee to answer a tough question: Give them one minute of uninterrupted time to answer on their own. After that, push the question harder and harder until the interviewee feels pressured to respond, interrupting if necessary.

This works well in investigative reporting, but I found it challenging to do during a profile piece. I found out from Jonny’s best friend that he struggled with substance abuse, but I didn’t ask what type of substance. As soon as I hung up, I regretted it. When I called his ex-girlfriend, she brought up his substance abuse problem. I asked twice and didn’t receive an answer. Finally, I found a window where I could ask for a third time without being rude or pushy. She told me that Jonny not only had a problem with meth, but he got her hooked on it as well. The whole story seemed to change with that piece of the puzzle, and my follow ups took me to a place I hadn’t expected.

7. Finish strong; make connections: Interviewing is a tough job, but being interviewed can be exhausting, especially when the stories being told are emotional. It’s important to be gracious at the end and to let the interviewee know that he/she did a wonderful job and provided interesting content. This will lend itself to the final question: “Who else do you know that I could interview on this subject?”

I prefer this question to “Do you know anyone else?” because it’s more assertive.

I learned the hard way that it’s crucial to get contact information then and there. Jonny’s best friend told me that he would provide me a long list of names and numbers if I gave him a little time. He even promised me a box of Jonny’s old wrestling videos. That was two weeks ago, and now, he won’t respond to my messages, so I’m hunting down sources that I could have had at my fingertips.

On the other hand, during my interview with Jonny’s ex-girlfriend, I asked for the full names of people I could contact (so I could look them up on Facebook), and at the end, she gave me the names and phone numbers of Jonny’s closest relatives. These subjects will turn a rough story into a true profile.

Keeping these seven factors in mind will take your phone interviews to new levels. Most importantly, and what I’m finding, is that interview skills over the phone improve with practice. I’m even beginning to look forward to my evening phone calls with strangers where a simple narrative turns into a roller coaster of emotions and stories.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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