This year, I've started writing a few articles for magazines and journals. I got lucky on the first few--the editors were perfectly happy with emailed questions and answers. Then came the day when an editor requested I call a source and interview her.
Great, I thought. Now what? Somehow I had survived more than eleven years in the writing business with only rare phone contact with my sources.
I was sure I was going to make a complete ass of myself, but I didn't. Furthermore, the editor was right. The quotes I got from that phone call were far better than anything I could have pulled from a politely-worded email.
Since then, I've done many phone interviews with different types of experts. In doing so, I've stumbled upon a few secrets I wish I had known the first time I picked up the phone and nervously made my first call to conduct an interview.
1. Record the Call...If Your Subject Agrees
I love recording phone calls. They allow me to listen to the subject rather than scribbling incomprehensible notes to myself. The recording also gives me some piece of mind, in case there is ever a dispute about what was or wasn't said. Of course, I always ask before I turn on the recorder. Not one subject has ever refused consent once I explained that the recordings were for my own personal use and that I would delete them after the article ran.
2. Do Your Research
You don't have to make yourself an expert (that's why you're talking to your subject, after all), but it's nice to know a little about the topic you're covering and how the subject relates to it. Otherwise, you may end up wasting your time and your subjects with hopelessly basic questions rather than with probing questions to shine a new light on your topic.
3. Be Task Oriented
Most people like to talk about themselves if given the opportunity. If your subject starts getting off course, it's fine to nicely redirect him or her to the matter at hand. ("I could talk to you all day about these things, but I know you're probably busy. Could you tell me a little more about the time when...?")
4. Be Flexible
On the other hand, if you sense that your subject is taking the conversation in an interesting direction, it's okay to go there and see what comes up. Any doctor or therapist will tell you that clients disclose the most interesting revelations during small talk at the end of the appointment. Pay special attention to phrases like, "Oh, by the way..." or "I almost forgot, I wanted to tell you about..."
5. Be Direct
If you have potentially sensitive questions to ask, state them clearly in a calm, respectful tone. Chances are good that your subject is expecting them and will appreciate it if you don't beat around the bush.
6. Silence is Your Friend
If you feel like a subject has given an incomplete answer to your question, your best response is to say nothing. Most people hate voids in conversation and will start talking again just to ease the tension. The more you listen, the more you are likely to find out.
7. Shut Up
During my first interviews, I was so eager to impress my subjects with the knowledge about the topic that I forgot the focus was supposed to be on their knowledge. This tendency to over-talk may not seem obvious (to you) during the interview, but you'll catch it when you listen to the recording. Remember, when you're talking, you're not getting any information you can use for your article.
8. Remove Distractions
I'm pretty adaptable to my surroundings. I've even managed to conduct a couple of interviews with a 20-pound gray cat asleep on my keyboard. But I don't recommend it. Before you place a call to someone you want to interview, put the pets out of the room, turn off the TV and radio, and and silence the dishwasher, laundry machine, and clother dryer. If your computer beeps whenever you get new mail, silence that function, too.
9. Verify the Subject's Title and the Spelling of His or Her Name
Before ending the call, make sure you have the name spelled correctly and ask for any titles or credentials you should include in the article.
10. Keep a Bottle of Water on Your Desk
I've found it helpful to keep a bottle of water, soda, or juice on my desk to take case of sudden-onset dry throat or coughing spells.
11. Say Thank You
At the end of the interview, thank your subject for his or her time and expertise. Make sure you have his or her contact information, and offer to send the subject a copy of the article if it appears in print or a link to the article if it appears online. Then follow through.
If you treat people politely and respectfully, they'll often invite you to call them again if you ever write about a similar subject. These offers are a great foundation for a library of experts that you can keep at your fingertips.
It took a little to sell me on the virtues of phone interviewing, but now that I feel more comfortable with it, I like it much better than the "safe" email Q & A interviews I used to conduct.
Do you prefer phone or email interviews?