What Are Some Tips on Doing Quality Phone Interviews for Publication?
February 27, 2013 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting to get bids to do phone interviews with touring artists and have never done this kind of thing before - can the Mefiverse give me good tips on how to capture/get quality quotes, ask non-stupid questions and frame the lede/narrative?

Ideally hoping to get tips on note-taking, research, etc. (i.e. how does someone transcribe what the subject is saying while on the phone at the same time?) Any advice is welcome!
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In terms of the transcription, I would certainly record the interview and transcribe from the recording (assuming the artist doesn't have an objection to this).

I would also spend some time listening to Terri Gross interview artists. She does an excellent job.
posted by HuronBob at 2:41 PM on February 27, 2013

I would usually record the conversation and take notes. If I missed something I was never afraid to ask the subject to repeat themselves or say something like "so you were saying . . ." if I needed clarification. People who talk to the media often know what's going on and I found most subjects to be understanding provided the story I was working on wasn't in some way going to make them look bad or cast them in a negative light.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:50 PM on February 27, 2013

You can take notes, and ask if you can record the conversation--in most states, it's 2 party consent. Can you submit your questions in advance (not everyone likes to do this, but it's a whole lot easier if the interviewee has some inkling of what you're going to talk about.) Pay attention to how the person sounds during the interview--even if you don't see them, you can get lots of information about how things are going, what's good about the tour, and so on from their tone, rather than just the words. Can you Skype them?
Gross isn't a good example for a beginner, as she's got a staff of people to do the research and the pre-interviews. (She also talks to people a couple of times, and then everything is edited together.)
posted by Ideefixe at 2:50 PM on February 27, 2013

I was a freelance journalist for years, and one of the things I figured out about interviewing artists is that you often get better quotes if you ask them about somewhat uncomfortable subjects. I don't mean you should be a jerk, but if you just stick to the subjects that the interviewee is comfortable with, you're often going to end up with a pretty bland interview. You have to figure out how to politely, respectfully bring up the difficult subjects the reader would be interested in.

I took Bob Costas' ancient interview show Later as an inspiration. He would have somebody like Paul McCartney on, and he would read McCartney some quote from Rolling Stone about how Paul had become bland and boring since the Beatles broke up. Then Costas would say something like, "Whether that's true or not, that's obviously a criticism you've been hearing for a while now. What would you say, to those critics who say you've lost your edge in recent years?"

Costas would frame it so that the criticism of the subject was addressed, without it being Costas himself making the criticism. (The danger here is that if the subject is particularly touchy, they might turn it on you. "So what are you saying? That I've lost my edge?" You have to be prepared for that.)

Also, you have to be prepared to ditch your notes if need be. If your subject says something interesting in passing, follow up on it, follow the tangent. Don't be such a slave to your research that you let an interesting digression pass by. You don't want to publish one of those interviews where the interviewee mentions something fascinating and the interviewer doesn't follow up on it. That's really frustrating to the reader. Treat it like a conversation that evolves as it's happening.

There are devices you can use to record phone calls. But I always used a transcription method I learned from Roger Ebert. (I didn't learn it first-hand, mind you.) I would constantly jot down quick notes about what the subject was saying, and then as soon as the interview was over I would transcribe it from memory. I found that I was better able to capture the flavor of what was said that way, and I could take a bit of artistic license so I could move a really good closing quote to the end, and stuff like that. Often times interviewees will digress all over the place, and using this method you can kind of cluster their relevant quotes together.

Nobody ever complained that I'd misquoted them. I wouldn't use that method for a news story, something where objectivity was really crucial... But for an interview with an actor or a singer, why not?

You are not trying to be the interviewee's friend. You want to be respectful and decent, but even if the interviewee is a total sweetheart and the idea of making them uncomfortable breaks your heart, you have to risk it. Don't write puff pieces. The world has plenty of puff already.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:59 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Terri Gross is actually a good example of what I mean. She can very occasionally be kind of rude and condescending, but generally she does a good job of taking the conversation into unexpected, revealing and sometimes dark areas while staying respectful.

The thing that Costas showed me (and this was years before I started interviewing anybody) is that almost anybody can be a great interview subject. He would have somebody like Tony Danza on, and I'd be like, Tony Danza? No thanks. But then Costas would get into Danza's childhood and his years as a boxer and all this stuff I'd never heard of before, and somehow he would make Danza interesting. There are no truly bad interview subjects, only bad interviewers!

Also: if any of your questions could possibly be answered with just a yes or a no, rephrase it. And don't be afraid of awkward silences. If you leave the subject hanging, they'll keep talking. Finally: the interview is never about you. You only exist to profile the subject for the reader. If the subject hits on you or says your hat looks stupid or does something else notable and revealing regarding you, you can include it. But never make the mistake of thinking that the readers care about you. You're a stranger to them, the interview subject is what's important.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:42 PM on February 27, 2013

You should probably record. Warning: transcription is TERRIBLE. But it's important to be faithful. I actually type my interviews as they are happening, but even for a speed typer that can get exhausting. Also, it can be distracting.

My two cents: Do not under any circumstances write from memory. Please do not under any circumstances take any kind of "artistic license." If someone is paying you at some point to do interviews, and they find out you do this, you will be fired. (Well, at least you should be!) And if you mess up an interview, or something goes awry, and you don't have verbatim notes or tape, and you get sued, you are hosed.

(Don't worry, that is rare.)

You should have a bunch of questions prepped. Crazy ones. The kind of questions that you can pop in when there's an awkward silence and you need to be jarring. Interviews have their own lives. Sometimes you can never get people to get real with you. Sometimes people show up incredibly present and open. (Once I interviewed a sort of reclusive famous actor and I started off by asking about his recent birthday and how the age felt for him, and he responded that his father had died at that age and how he'd always been afraid of his father and we ended up in this insane, intense hour-long conversation about mortality and fatherhood and parenting and stuff, it was really probably NOT what my editor wanted but I quite liked it.)

I often find that details like that are the way in. "What did you do last night?" leads to "Who did you do it with?" leads to "How long have you known that person and how did you meet?" and then stories ensue and then you learn about how they spend time and with whom they spend it and what kind of person they are and why they make the art that they make as well as how they make it. This method of starting small and drilling down and following up doesn't always get you what you want, but half the time it gets you somewhere really satisfying.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:13 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

" someone is paying you at some point to do interviews, and they find out you do this, you will be fired"

For pity's sake. As I said, it's not appropriate for a news article, but for a profile, it's fine. I did it for over a decade and it was never kept secret from my editors or the people I was interviewing. Maybe it depends on your recall skills. If you got a lot wrong, I could see it being a problem. Maybe it's not for everybody. But I certainly wasn't the only journalist who worked that way, and the practice is hardly as scandalous as you make it sound.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:17 PM on February 27, 2013

Do a lot of research first so you can ask about things -- so you know where the gold is buried. But don't be sure that your research will turn up all the gold -- there might be new stuff or there might be stuff that other journalists haven't ferreted out before.

Go in with an idea of your angle, but be open to new stuff.

You can record using Skype and a program like Call Recorder. But take notes too -- the recording is mostly if you miss something. When someone is going on and on and their quotes are all golden, just jot down the time so you'll know where in the recording the good stuff is.

To see if your questions are good, try to answer them yourself. Some questions sound great but are impossible to answer.

Ask short, neutral questions. People like to listen to Terry Gross, but a lot of her interviewing is designed to show off how well she knows the subject, i.e. "So I know that when you first moved to Bali you had your hand ripped off in an agricultural accident. Did it hurt?" And then the person's response is like "Well, yes, it did hurt, and." But for trying to get cool print quotes, you'll get further if you ask a question like "So what happened right after you moved to Asia?" Don't worry about trying to make yourself sound expert. People like to tell their stories.

When someone answers, listen. Don't be married to your list of questions. Ask interesting follow-up questions and see where they lead you.

When someone answers, say "mmm" in an interested tone and then fall silent for a couple of seconds. Sometimes they'll reach out and fill the gap with an interesting thing.

At the end ask if there's anything else they'd like to say.

Then re-read your notes and think "what sentence-long takeaway can I imagine someone getting from this?" Imagine one person calling another and saying "I just read an interview with Siouxie Sioux about [...] and it was really interesting." That [...] might be your angle.
posted by feets at 3:11 PM on February 28, 2013

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