Scoring the interview is a major coup. Nailing the interview is a whole different story.
People have started to rely on email Q&A (guilty::raises hand) but it never makes for the same kind of piece. When and if it makes sense, hop on the phone. You will always get better material from your subject, even if they push back a little. We're all out of practice on the phone and it can be intimidating.
It doesn't need to be.
Here are tips for conducting a phone interview that will get you the unique content you want.
FIRST THINGS, FIRST
Get your recording equipment set up and ready to go. Yes, you need to record the interview. Everyone has their own style and preference when it comes to programs, but don't rely on transcribing as the subject speaks.
Know that the fear that tech is going to fail you (this even happens to seasoned journalist Moira Forbes who told us that the “angst of losing an interview” is so real) and that you’re going to hop off the phone and have zero percent of the convo.Some people take notes as they go to counter that anxiety but if you’re too busy typing, it also means that you’re also busy not listening.
Do a bit of both. Hit record and listen for the golden nuggets. Typing while the person is talking can be a bit distracting to both parties, so opt to write notes by hand. Whether it's specific lines or taking note of a time of some great, jaw-dropping sound bite. Time stamping specific parts will help you when you're trying to piece together the story, or find the meat of the interview.
Trust your gut and know that you probably picked up on the guts and glory of the story as it was happening.
RIGHT, RIGHT, RIGHT?
You’re going to feel compelled to say something. For me, this is “right.” It’s part habit, part tick, but it’s also a tiny word that let’s the person on the other end know that you’re alive and paying attention.
In person this can often be achieved with a head nod. On the phone you need to fine tune this because you don’t want to throw the interviewee off track. A well-placed “right,” is sometimes the encouragement the subject needs to keep talking, however if you overuse the word or interject in the wrong place it will throw your subject off. If you’re only saying “right,” to make yourself feel relevant on the call, it’s not the correct time to say it. A good phone interview is both about leading and being lead. If the person is comfortable speaking without being prompted, allow them the space to speak. Use this as an opportunity to dig in a little deeper, jotting quick hand-written notes on pars of the convo that you want to ask follow-up questions about.
NOTES, NOTES, NOTES//LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
Don’t let yourself get distracted. When you’re on the phone it’s easier to check your email, respond to a colleague's question, scroll social media (tsk, don’t) -- the “rudies” that you would never do during an in person interview. However accidentally, getting distracted on a long phone call, happens.
A great way to stop it from happening is to take the aforementioned notes. This solves two problems: one, if for some reason your recording device fails, you still have some content. And two, it helps you give your subject your undivided attention.
Remember that? From grammar school? Undivided is what you gave your teacher and it’s what you should give the interview. If you don’t, you WILL miss specific words and pauses and cues that allow you to ask more intricate and finely tuned questions. People are almost always willing to talk about themselves, but you have to know when to ask.
THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE
One key piece of advice I heard early on is this: listen for the question not being answered. What does that mean?
Within any given answer is a question you’re not asking-- one that you haven’t thought to ask or one that you didn’t know to ask. It’s when someone reveals something about themselves that feeds into (what might be) the most important question (or set of questions) you will ask during the entire interview: the one that’s not scripted.
IF YOU HAVE TO SEND OVER QUESTIONS BEFOREHAND
It’s common to have to send questions prior to a phoner so that the subject has the chance to review. Most people don’t like going into interviews blind (though, it certainly makes for a better, unrehearsed piece.) If you have to do this, don’t simply read from the scrip while you're on the phone. Listen for pauses and cues where you have the opportunity to ask something off the cuff. Make it a conversation and you will be rewarded when writing the piece.
This brings up something else that’s crucial: use the internet to do your research, not to write your questions. Do the research, commit the person’s story to mind, and then write and craft questions at a different point in time. That way you let their story soak into your brain a bit. This allows you to create questions not solely based off of information that already exists.
When it comes time to pick up the phone, do so with confidence and an understanding of your subject and their business. An unprepared interviewer is the worst.