General Journalism / Journalism Jobs / Journalism skills

The secrets of a phone interview.

This week, I had my first proper phone interview with someone reasonably well-known (I will post the link to my blog once it is published). Although I have done a few face to face interviews before, and a couple of phone ones, I learnt a lot in those 20ish minutes that definitely deserved a blog post.

Firstly, I was really nervous! The interview was scheduled for me to ring him at 9 in the morning, and in the 10 minutes leading up to me ringing, I was thinking to myself: I want to be a journalist, I want to work on a magazine, I want to interview people so I really really need to man up and stop being so nervous. Are all journalists nervous when they interview celebs? Or maybe when they first start out? Who knows, but I realised I needed to buck my ideas up if I want to succeed in this industry. There are so many aspiring journalists out there who wouldn’t be nervous at all in interviewing someone famous and would probably be pretty excited. So, because of the nature of the competitive industry, I can’t let something like nerves pull me down!

I’ve compiled a list of my advice/things I have learnt from that one phone call.. here it goes.

  1. RECORDING – I spent a while stressing over how I would record this interview. Shorthand? Erm, no, unless he talks at a 40wpm speed and slows down on the longer words so I can get the right outline. Typing? Maybe, I’m quite a quick typer and can touch-type. Record it? Yes, but I don’t have a dictaphone yet, but I do have an iPod that can do the job. Type and record it? Record it on more than once device in case one of them fails? I was still thinking this while the phone was ringing – it was on loudspeaker, next to my iPod which was recording, and I planned to type it too just in case. When he answered, I realised that the typing may be quite loud, and make me seem a bit disinterested in talking to him if I was concentrating on getting it all down, so that went out the window. So I relied on my trusty iPod – well I say trusty, but this was the first time I had used it as a dictaphone. When I hung up and started playing the recording back, I realised how precious that voice clip was – if I lost it then I’ve lost the interview and can’t exactly ring him back to say ‘sorry, could you repeat all that?’. I held my iPod like it was a baby and didn’t even click out of the app until I had finished transcribing!
  2. RESEARCH – Know the person you are interviewing!! When the editor of the magazine emailed me and ask if I knew this person, I personally hadn’t heard of him, although everyone else I asked afterwards had. When I researched him I started to find out what he had done, what topics I wanted to focus on and background information that may come in useful. If I’m honest, I probably should have done a bit more. When I was interviewing, he caught me out on something that I hadn’t researched and joked with me about being disappointed, but that’s my first lesson right there. Learn EVERYTHING you can about the person, you don’t want to be embarrassed if you’re asking a question that simply shows you have done no research. A good tip is to look online for other interviews they have done and the sorts of things they talk about.
  3. QUESTIONS – This leads nicely onto questions. To avoid flapping about getting nervous and not knowing what to say, I wrote down all the questions I wanted to ask in order, and intended to follow it. In reality, it doesn’t happen like that. The main reason is that if he is answering a question, it breaks the flow if you follow that up with something off topic, but is listed as the next question you have written down. So when I was interviewing, I tried to show I was listening to his answers by building on them and asking more. Obviously I still used my questions as a guide to develop the interview, but I didn’t want them to feel separated. This is the benefit of phone or face to face interviews that you can’t get with interviews over email.
  4. INTERRUPT/SILENCES – listening back to my recording was very cringe. Not only because of my high, squeaky voice but also because I found myself sometimes interrupting him when he paused for a short while. By the end of the recording, I think I had learnt my lesson because when he paused, I didn’t immediately start talking, and he ended up expanding on his answer. Don’t worry if there are short silences, sometimes they may want to think about what they are going to say, especially as they are talking to a journalist for something that will be put out in the media. Try not to interrupt and let them speak, give them time and don’t worry if there are short gaps.
  5. WORDY QUESTIONS – Don’t do it. It’s not great for the interviewee. Listening back to my recording, some of my questions were quite long, or I asked a question then for some reason rephrased it into the same question, for no reason. It sounded awkward and it’s better to ask a question, and maybe only rephrase it if you don’t get the answer you intended.
  6. BE FRIENDLY – I tried to be quite informal in my interview and have a bit of a laugh. I think by making it more formal they are less likely to engage more in the conversation. Ask them how they are, don’t jump straight into the questions – although you do have to do that at some point. Try and be chatty although it might seem hard, especially if it is someone famous.
  7. THANK THEM – at the end. They’ve given up their time to talk to you.

I think I’ll stop it there, as I’m looking at the word count at the bottom of my screen as it’s telling me I’ve hit the 1,000 mark.

It’s all great experience and I’m sure after doing more interviews, some of these points will become second nature to me – well I hope – but I think after every interview you do, you will always take something away from it that you can learn next time.

I’m glad I did it, and I’m excited to see it published 🙂

One thought on “The secrets of a phone interview.

  1. I came across this article a few days ago and found it so hopeful for my first major telephone interview I did yesterday. Thanks for the great tips!

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