How do I conduct a good telephone interview?
April 28, 2006 1:48 PM   Subscribe

How do I conduct a good telephone interview?

My fiance and I are starting a podcast, and our episodes are centered around telephone interviews with various guests. I've got our technical setup all figured out at this point, but neither of us has any kind of background in journalism. What should we do--and not do--to make for a really good interview?
posted by jefgodesky to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have a good idea of what areas you'd like to cover, but avoid verbatim questions—the interview will proceed much more naturally if you aren't tied to a script so much as operating off an outline.

This might be obvious, but try to have a good idea of why you're talking to this person, and why they're talking to you, and build around that. Be familiar with their background, but don't feel the need to tell them about themselves.

Let the interviewee talk. Interject when something catches your interest, but don't make it about you; challenging them to respond to your perceptions is one thing, telling them What You Think is another entirely.

If you're at all able to, plan to edit. If you plan to edit, don't worry about getting things just right in the live interview. Re-iterate/clarify questions without fear, and do surgery after the fact. Let your interviewee know that this is a possibility, too—this may put them at considerable ease if they are at all nervous about speaking "live".
posted by cortex at 2:26 PM on April 28, 2006

Listen to and/or read the other interviews that have been conducted with your subject. Many interviewees who are being interviewed frequently in a short period of time - i.e. if they are in the news for some reason, or have released an album, book, or article - will have been asked many of the 'obvious' questions in other interviews. They will have fixed answers for many of the common, repeatedly asked questions, and could have stock answers for these questions that might deliberately avoid a particular angle you are trying to explore.

Come up with strategies to avoid the stock answers. One strategy is to not ask the same questions, or to include the stock answers in your questions. For example: "In your $DATE interview with $OTHER_INTERVIEWER you said $STOCK answer. $QUESTION_DESIGNED_TO_GO_BEYOND_STOCK_ANSWER?
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:59 PM on April 28, 2006

What should we do...

Your homework. Know your guest. Know the topic.

What should we...not do...

The most important lesson I learned in radio: Don't talk over your guest.

In face-to-face interviews for print, you can use verbal cues to keep your subject talking by indicating that he has your attention: "Yeah...uh, huh...right...OK...[etc.]." DO NOT DO THIS. In radio, your job is to produce a clear-quality audio recording that can be edited for broadcast and unspecified potential future applications. Don't screw up your recording. Let your guest speak, wait a beat to make sure he's finished, then reply.
posted by cribcage at 3:04 PM on April 28, 2006

This book has been very helpful to me and others in learning about qualitative interviewing for social science research. Don't get scared off! The book is non-theoretical, and I imagine it would be really helpful for anyone wanting to learn how to be a good interviewer. Just skip the analysis sections.

You can peruse it at Amazon, and probably find it in libraries. I see you're in Pittsburgh, and you may not know this, but Duquesne has been a hotbed for qualitative social science research. I'd be very surprised if they didn't have this kind of book in their library or bookstore.
posted by jasper411 at 3:31 PM on April 28, 2006

This is the book Susan Reed uses at Harvard Extension.
posted by cribcage at 4:01 PM on April 28, 2006

Everyone above has already contributed fantastic advice.

There was a thread recently on AskMe that I found very helpful when I took on a regular freelance gig interviewing elite runners. I have no experience with podcasts or radio interviews, but my interviews are primarily conducted over the phone, and I would like to second the comments above about thoroughly researching your subject.

Reading other recent and not-so-recent interviews and profiles not only lets you avoid asking obvious questions that have been discussed to death and are public knowledge to anyone with a passing interest in your subject, but also gives you the option to revisit those questions with your interviewee if you wish.

(Nice formula, By The Grace of God!)

Framed in the right way, revisiting their statements allows them to expand on previous thoughts and discuss any possible shifts in their philosophy or point of view. In addition, most people appreciate talking to someone who appears to take a keen interest in who they are and they will more open and less guarded than if they feel, in the absence of visual cues or clues, that they are simply being put through their paces.

Write down the key questions that you have in as loose a format as you can stand; simple key words work well. This keeps your questions from sounding rehearsed or prefabricated.

Finally, don't be afraid to follow up answers with uncool questions like "why do you think this is true?" , "have you always felt this way", or simply, "now, why is that?". A lot of times the truly interesting stuff surfaces during those follow-ups.
posted by stagewhisper at 5:31 PM on April 28, 2006

Unless your guests are experienced interviewees, give them a few minutes at the start of your call for a meta-conversation. Give them a heads up of what you'll be asking (if that is appropriate), confirm with them any plug info, spelling/pronunciation issues, etc. Do this in your "air" voice, and don't cut back and forth between an "air" voice and style, and a regular voice. For your guests, and your audience, your "air" voice is your only voice. Let your guests hear your introduction as you do it, and don't put this in as preproduction. Start your interview immediately after finishing your introduction.

Don't do anything else while interviewing. Surprisingly, many people doing phone interviews get distracted by their computer, books, or notes. Close your eyes and listen while your guest speaks. If you want to cut away, or put in artificial radio style promo breaks, time hacks, etc., do it in post production editing, not in line with the interview.

Make a conscious effort to speak slowwwwly, and clearly yourself. It rubs off on your guest, and it helps people in your audience who are listening in cars, airplanes, subways, and other noisy environments.

Use simple words, and sentence/question structures. Avoid, like a plague, the whole "2 minute comment disguising a 10 second question" scenario. Ask question. Listen to answers. Ask followup question. Listen to answers. Let your audience tie things together for themselves. Repeat any guest responses you don't hear clearly yourself, for the sake of your audience, but don't try to summarize or restate any of your guests comments in doing so.

Plug the guest's project/book/film/gig at the front of the interview, and again at the end, but not anywhere else. Plug your website and announce upcoming events at the end of your program, not anywhere else. Credit any sponsors/copyright holders etc. at the end, not anywhere else.

The less music you use, the less you have to license and clear, and the fewer people you'll lose and offend by stupid musical cues and selections. If your audience wanted to listen to music, they wouldn't be listening to a podcast.
posted by paulsc at 9:05 PM on April 28, 2006

On the topic of music, I wouldn't totally discount it. Yes, licensing sucks, but well chosen and deployed music can be really powerful. Ira Glass is a big proponent of it, but I'm having a hard time finding a good link for his discussion of music + radio. There are some comments on (search for music in the comments), but I think what I'm remembering is in this book.
posted by heresiarch at 9:31 PM on April 28, 2006

"... Yes, licensing sucks, but well chosen and deployed music can be really powerful. ..."
posted by heresiarch at 12:31 AM EST on April 29 [!]

Not to get into a derail here, but I strongly disagree, simply because musical tastes are so diverse, and reactions to music are so personally subjective. Adding music to a spoken interview program where there is no need to signal to the audience artificial program transitions such as station breaks is, in my opinion, a very poor strategy. In radio, music has become something of a shorthand between producers and listeners, but it is notoriously a fickle relationship, since the introduction of the push button radio receiver.

Put a two-second sample of some hip-hop "beat" in a podcast, if you really want to make sure I don't listen to more than those two seconds. Put 15 seconds of Placido Domingo singing Verdi in it, if you want to lose 80% of the audience in those 15 seconds, regardless of the fact that Domingo is a great singer. Put some Coldplay in there if you want to be completely forgettable.

Or put some silence in there, or maybe some wind noise, if you want the words of your guests to stand out, and be actively listened to by an attentive audience.
posted by paulsc at 10:04 PM on April 28, 2006

If you compose a few signature stings and stabs, I think it adds a lot to a show. Just something that people can instantly identify as being a part of your show, and when they hear it, know exactly what to expect.
posted by phrontist at 10:48 PM on April 28, 2006

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