For freelance writers who work with magazines or online publications, completing phone interviews is a way of life.
Technology, social media and email have certainly made it easier to connect with sources, but when it comes to writing a feature story, phone interviews beat email every time.
Why? As a writer, when you speak with a source on the phone, you’re able to:
- Build rapport and a comfortable dialogue with a source.
- Put an interviewee at ease, making them more likely to share compelling information.
- Ask provocative questions that build off of previous questions and answers.
- Hear and feel the person’s emotions as he shares his story, giving you a better understanding of the given topic.
- Find new angles or hidden gems that might not have been shared if the interview had been completed via email.
- Save the interviewee the work and time of having to type her answers out in an email.
After recently completing 10 phone interviews with sources and experts for two magazine feature stories, I’ve found a few tips and tricks can lead to better, more informative conversations.
Here are five strategies for conducting phone interviews that help you write better stories:
1. Be prepared for the interview
There’s nothing worse than jumping on a call with a source with little to no background information.
Do your homework and research the person before your interview. Ask your editor for as much information as possible about the source ahead of time, and come to the call with a list of pre-written questions to get the conversation going. Not only will you appear more prepared, you’ll put the source at ease with your level of professionalism.
Plus, when you prepare well beforehand, you can often complete an interview much more quickly than if you hadn’t done your homework. I like to schedule phone interviews for 30-minute blocks. With the right amount of pre-work, I’m able to stick to that timeframe, helping me complete interviews more efficiently.
2. Start with a softball
To get the best interview possible, you need your interviewee to feel comfortable. When a source feels relaxed and at ease, you’re in a better place to find the most compelling angle and capture quotes that will enhance your story.
Start the phone interview with general pleasantries and small talk. I find this strategy often helps the source feel more comfortable speaking with me because he recognizes that I’m a real person, just like him.
To ease into my list of interview questions, I like to ask this one first: “Tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got to where you are today.”
This question helps the interviewee open up, gives you some much-needed background information and lays the groundwork for the questions that will come later in the interview. Also, this open-ended question gives you the chance to learn something new that might help the story and trigger other interview questions.
If you’re like me and freelance writing is your side hustle, listening carefully may prove difficult.
In my day job, I’m usually the one talking, consulting and teaching, so being quiet and truly tuning in to a source can be really challenging. I find myself wanting to have a two-way conversation (that’s the PR pro in me!) and while it’s great to build rapport with the person you’re interviewing, you’ll get a better story when you keep your mouth shut and let the other person do the talking.
On some calls, I don’t speak for 10 minutes — I’m busy furiously listening and taking notes. I don’t record my interviews, so taking clear, concise and accurate notes is of utmost importance, making listening carefully even more crucial.
And these calls where I don’t speak for 10 minutes at a time often give me the best information.
Resist the urge to interrupt with further questions or comments while a source is telling her story. Instead, write down your comments or questions and wait for the interviewee to finish speaking before you jump in and move the conversation forward.
4. Embrace the silence
Silence can feel uncomfortable, but in the case of phone interviews, it can be pure gold. Sources often share crucial bits of information if you let the silence linger just a little bit.
Because of the feeling of discomfort or awkwardness, the person you’re interviewing will generally jump to fill the silence … and he’ll often fill it with great information you may not otherwise have been able to pull out of him.
Plus, when you leave room for a little silence, the interviewee has a moment to reflect, gather his thoughts and perhaps share information in a different and more quotable way than before. Don’t fear the silence; practice embracing it and you will soon be reaping the benefits.
5. End interviews with this question: “Is there anything you haven’t had the opportunity to share that you feel would benefit the story?”
As the writer, you’ve come to the interview with a list of questions. You have an idea of the information you need from a source to complete your story. However, the interviewee is usually a wealth of knowledge… and there may be an important question you haven’t asked.
To make sure I get all the information I need before hanging up the phone, I end all my interviews by asking the source if there’s something she hasn’t had the opportunity to share but feels would benefit the story. Usually there is a question I haven’t asked, and some information the source is dying to share.
It’s usually a hidden gem that I only discover in asking that last open-ended question. Give it a try — you may be surprised at what you discover.
What are your best tips for conducting great phone interviews?