Press all the right buttons in phone interviews

I once interviewed a Cabinet minister while he was in the bath (not with me, I hasten to add). And then there was the celebrity who gave me a quote while she was apparently making love. Imagine that – at least it showed she’d got her priorities right.

Such are the joys of conducting interviews by phone. They are part and parcel of a journalist’s life. In fact I have met some young reporters who have never interviewed someone face to face – they do everything by phone, or even worse, by email.

There’s no point in arguing the weaknesses of phone interviews. They’re here to stay – so it’s important to get the basics right.

When calling a mobile, always ask the person straight away if it is convenient to talk. They may be driving, in the bath, making love, or at the supermarket checkout.

Try to judge the best time to call. If you can select a good time from knowledge of a person’s routine, then they are more likely to talk to you.

Speak clearly. A lot of people gabble on the phone. Try to slow down – and don’t SHOUT. Most people think they have to yell, especially when they are using mobile phones. In fact, some people talk so loudly, they could probably conduct the conversation without using a phone at all.

Introduce yourself briefly but slowly and clearly, to allow the person time to tune into you if they don’t know you. First impressions are crucial with phone interviews – so be over-polite – your voice is all the caller has to judge you by.

Try to give the person a good reason why they should talk to you in the first 15 seconds of the conversation. Spell out a benefit if you can. Use threats – ‘Well, we’ll run the story without your side, then’ – as a last resort.

Smile as you talk – this helps to create warmth. And it might even cheer your colleagues up, too.

Listen carefully –and, if possible, try to avoid pauses while you are writing things down.

Keep questions focused and to the minimum. Try to find out as much as possible before the interview, so you don’t waste time asking unnecessary questions.

Don’t eat or drink as you talk. It sounds like feeding time at the zoo at the other end.

Don’t do anything else as you speak, especially work on your PC. Most people can tell when they haven’t got your undivided attention and may consider it rude.

Use a headset if the interview is a long one and the handset impedes your ability to take notes.

Check name spellings and so on carefully. Be aware of letters that become distorted over the phone (for example, ‘f’ and ‘s’ sound the same… so check if it’s ‘s for sugar’ or ‘f for Freddy’). Pay particular attention to foreign names.

If you are calling a mobile phone, be aware that the person may know who you are before they answer, so you will not be able to catch them off-guard.

Take care recording calls – you could easily break the law. Always record calls yourself. Recordings made by third parties breach the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. And you should have your boss’s consent if you are recording calls made at work.

Make the most of new technology. You can easily do face-to-face interviews using webcams if you have an internet phone system like Skype.

Cleland Thom is director of Potential.GB.com, a journalism training organisation

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