Interviewing on the phone is harder than face-to-face. You can’t see your sources, and they can bail out more easily when you close in. So you need a few extra techniques.
Because you’re not present, you can’t pick up cues from facial expressions or body language. Your source may be talking perfectly calmly, but you don’t see her doodling scowly faces. And she can’t see you smiling and nodding, apparently writing down all the interesting things she’s saying. You can’t ask about things you might notice in the scene, such as that signed photo of Alice Waters on her desk, which you can’t see.
Telephone interviews tend to be shorter, so you need to know what you’re after, plan your questions ahead, and manage the time. I always make up a list of key questions to ask at the right moments. Resist the temptation to use a list of questions as a script, asking them in sequence. They key to great interviewing is listening hard to follow-up answers.
You have less time for small talk to create an atmosphere and relax your subject. You’ll spend less time asking factual questions that lay down a base for harder questions to follow. So you do a little more preparation ahead of time to get things underway quickly and focus on essentials.
You can use time efficiently by keeping your questions short, clear, simple, and to the point. You’re interviewing to find out what the source knows, not to hear yourself talk. Direct the flow of subjects, not letting the source wander. Interrupt a rambling subject politely but firmly, like this: “Hmm, that’s really interesting. Now, let’s talk about ….” You can also sharpen the language and guide the flow by paraphrasing back what your source says: “What I hear you saying is….” or “Do you mean…?”
Not being present makes confirming facts harder; you can’t share documents. And you won’t hear as well on the phone. So you double-check orally by reading back spellings and numbers, for example: “Jane Jones, spelled j-a-n-e-j-o-n-e-s, right?” You’ll feel stupid spelling out “Jane Jones” until your source replies, “Oh no, it’s j-a-y-n-e-j-o-h-n-e-s.”
Sometimes a source wants to end a call before you’re through, so you turn it into an interruption. Ask for a time to call back. If the subject hangs up on you, here’s a technique from Edna Buchanan, the great Miami cop reporter: count to 30, call back, and say, “I’m sorry. We were cut off.”
At the end of the call, thank your source and create a channel to talk with her again. Ask if you can call back to check things; request a home number and perhaps an e-mail address. Then say, “If you think of anything you’d like to add, give me a call; here’s my number.” And thank her again.
As I look back over these techniques, I realize they apply equally well to all interviews, whether you’re there or not.
[Got any tips for telephone interviewing? We’d like to hear them. Thanks.]