Conduct Better Phone Interviews: 5 Strategies for Freelance Writers

Conduct Better Phone Interviews: 5 Strategies for Freelance Writers

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.

Strategies for conducting an effective phone interview

After completing phone interviews with sources and experts for magazine feature stories, I’ve found a few strategies can lead to better, more insightful conversations.

Here are five phone interview tips that will 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, and feel confident I’ve collected all the information I need.

2. Start with a softball to break the ice

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.

3. Listen (and resist the urge to talk)

Depending on if writing is your full-time gig or a side hustle, listening carefully may prove difficult.

In my role as the founder and CEO of a content management agency, I’m usually the one talking, consulting and teaching my clients. Being quiet and truly tuning in to a source can be challenging. I find myself wanting to have a two-way conversation, 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 

Here’s the best question you could ask at the end of an interview: “Is there anything else I should know?”

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.

Or, sometimes the interviewee doesn’t offer new information, but summarizes everything you’ve talked about with a quote that’s the perfect addition to your story.

You’re a writer, yes. But you can make your job a whole lot easier — and do that job better — if you ask good questions.

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Arjun says:

    A comment above mentioned that it is against Journalistic Ethics to let the Interviewees see a draft to ensure that it reflects the interviewees’ answers accurately. Would appreciate comment on that. Also, if recording a phone interview, are there legal issues re obtaining permission etc?

  • These are great tips. And it is so hard to be quiet, especially when you agree with what they are saying. I learned from a copywriting coach that just going, “mmmm” and not really saying a ‘word’ lets them know you are still there and listening.

    Also…I always have a drink or a cough drop in case I start coughing or something, and a box of tissues. Once, I realized that I’d sniffed a lot because I had a cold, and wondered if the woman thought I was one of those drug sniffing writers!

    The dogs are always out of the room so if they bark it can’t be heard. 🙂

  • Hailey says:

    Great tips! I have my first official phone interview tomorrow, so this was very helpful.

  • I am sharing this with one of my new writers right now. Great article. Great guidelines! Thank you.

  • Brian Boys says:

    Great article. I’ve been a full time copywriter for 25 years, 10 of those working as a freelancer, and I agree with everything you say. The more our culture withdraws into texting, email and social apps, the more useful an actual phone call becomes.

    You asked for some more phone interview tips.

    My experience has been doing interviews for corporate marketing pieces, like profiles for newsletters, blog posts, recruitment materials, and articles. If the client can *trust* you with calling up their VPs or their best clients, you can make very good money.

    The biggest concerns interviewees seem to have are 1) Are you going to respect my time? 2) Are you going to quote me saying something that will make me look bad? 3) Can I see the piece before it goes out?

    If you can allay these fears, you can get your info and make the interview experience a positive interaction for everybody.

    If other writers would find it useful, I have overly detailed instructions for setting up, interviewing, and writing specifically a corporate profile piece here:

    Thanks again for writing this. You clearly know what you’re talking about.

  • Gina Horkey says:

    Great tips Jess!

  • These tips will prove INVALUABLE for someone with a very real phobia of telephonic conversations – like ME! (I haven’t called my bestie in 6 years and sweat every time I need to make a doctor’s appointment 🙁 )

    Thank you so much, Jessica #HUGS


    PS: Aaah..those ‘awkward silences’ are one of the primary reasons I don’t like phone calls!

    • My absolutely pleasure, Kitto! 🙂 I used to HATE making phone calls, but now I’m getting much more comfortable on the phone.

      I hear you! Awkward silences are…awkward, but when you’re the one helping to guide the conversation, it can feel a little more natural.

      Good luck!

  • Steph says:

    These are awesome tips

    I had to conduct telephone interviews with entrepreneurs when I wrote my marketing thesis a couple of years ago – in hindsight I wish I’d ended with the open question you suggest in tip number 5, seems like a great way to get extra, even off-topic info that could be useful.

    Thanks for sharing Jessica!

    p.s – love your Get Gutsy blog/community, I’ve been following you for a while now – keep up the inspiring work!

    • Hi Steph!

      Thank you so much for the kind words about the Get Gutsy blog/community. 🙂 It means the world to have you as part of the community.

      Yes, the open question was something I picked up recently and it has been great. Often, people are shy and won’t go outside of the questions you ask, unless you give them an opening or opportunity.

      Thanks again for the comment and awesome words 🙂

  • Angie Dixon says:

    Man, I wish I’d had these tips long ago, before I did my first interview for a magazine. This is very helpful. I’ve had some experience now, but I’m still going to bookmark this and read it before I do an interview. I absolutely agree that being comfortable with the silence is a crucial part of a great interview. Thanks for this.

  • Rob Hope says:

    These are great tips! Particularly the one about embracing the silence. I remember doing an insurance salesman’s course years ago. That was one of their most powerful tricks in getting a prospect to commit themselves. People find almost impossible to keep quite.
    One more technical thing to add: I find having a hands-free system of some sort is a huge help. Either speaker phone or a headset. 30 minutes of clutching a receiver to your ear can get tiresome!

    • Hey Rob! Yes, embracing the silence has definitely been a game-changer for me when it comes to interviews. I never try to do it in a skeezy salesperson way (not that there is anything wrong with the strategy for sales in general) but rather to get the best information for the story.

      YES, I put my cell on speakerphone when I conduct interviews. Definitely need two hands and a straight spine to furiously take notes 🙂

  • Great post, Jess! These tips are spot on — I’ll be printing them out as a constant reminder when I’m conducting a phone interview. It’s particularly easy to forget that silence can be a good thing — I too often try to jump in to fill those “awkward” breaks, but you’re completely right in that the story often comes out in those times.


    • Thanks, Sar! I love that you’re going to print these tips out 🙂

      Awkward silences are just that…awkward, but SO useful. I really only learned that through trial and error, but now it’s definitely a strategy for me!

    • Plan says:

      I’ve conducted thousands of phone interviews over a 12+ year career as a journalist. Judges, senators, attorneys, police detectives, grieving parents, records clerks, crime witnesses, gunshot victims, scientists, athletes, laborers, specialists, union heads, school superintendents, people accused of horrible crimes, yadda yadda yadda. I was a crime reporter for seven years and a general assignment reporter for the rest of my career. Interviewing is a fundamental part of the job.

      I think most of the advice in this article is spot-on, but I would like to point out that recording your conversations is the way to go. Recording frees you up to become engaged in the conversation, so you’re not missing opportunities for follow up questions or clarification, and it ensures that your quotes are truly accurate. Memory is a funny thing. We may genuinely think we’re quoting people verbatim, but even the best of us are bound to make mistakes. Recording prevents those mistakes and also gives you a record of the conversation if a source ever denies a quote or claims you misunderstood what they were saying.

      Of course, there are often state-specific laws about recording conversations, so make sure you know them before you start recording. The only exception to the rule, as far as I’m concerned, is if you’re interviewing a “regular” person who isn’t accustomed to speaking to reporters. Sometimes those people can clam up if they know they’re being recorded. But CEOs, government officials, etc., should be used to dealing with media and won’t be put off by a reporter recording a call.

      Knowing when to shut up is also good advice. Some people will rush to fill the silence and tell you too much. Others will ramble, and sometimes that rambling produces other story ideas or adds context to a conversation. Remember also that there’s nothing wrong with taking a few seconds to gather your thoughts. If your source is pausing to think, don’t rush them.

      Asking interviewees if there’s anything you missed is also good advice. I’ll take it one step further and recommend asking your sources if they can recommend other people to talk to. Sometimes that leads to even better, more well-informed sources, and it can’t hurt your story.

      As for softballs, I don’t do that, but I can see how it might grease the wheels if you’re doing noncontentious stuff like corporate communications or entertainment stories. If you’re doing “srs” journalism, however, softballs are unprofessional and could come back to bite you in the ass if anything comes up and your editor asks for a transcript or recording. It’s good to remember that in journalism, you’re not making friends. Sources don’t even have to like you. In many cases, getting too chummy with sources impedes your ability to do your job. tl;dr version: choose your questions wisely, and always keep the tone of the interview professional.

      Good luck.

      • Thanks for your insights here! I can completely agree with a lot of what you’re saying for hard-hitting journalism or breaking news. What I’m mostly aiming to cover here is writing for feature pieces and/or entertainment, like you mentioned. A lot of times when I’m assigned a piece by my editors for these publications, the sources are already set, so I’m often not looking for more people to talk to. I can see how in news this would be super useful though to get a better story.

        I’m not a huge fan of recording conversations and actually find that writing while interviewing helps to keep me engaged, but you’re totally right that’s great to have a record, especially if it’s a sensitive topic.

        Great insights. Thank you!

  • Sergey says:

    These are fantastic tips. Phone interviews are so much better then email and provide a much better opportunity to listen to a client. Well done on the article.


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