Phone interviews: why a little preparation goes a long way

A radio interview

Our studio set up for mock radio interviews. Picture: Stephen Pritchard

With the pressure on today’s newsrooms, fewer journalists have time to meet contacts and sources face to face. Rather, phone interviews are the norm.

And at radio stations, phone outs, or remote interviews are becoming more common. Even on TV, we’re seeing a growing number of interviews carried out using Skype or other, Internet-based video calling services.

Phone interviews put some different pressures on spokespeople, whether the end result is going to be a printed, or written online, article, or a broadcast. There is a lack of eye contact, and all the subtle feedback that comes with a face to face meeting. Phone calls tend to be shorter – and so answers need to be punchier. If you’re going out on air over the phone, you also need to think about sound quality.

As a journalist, it’s quite common to carry out phone interviews with spokespeople who have not prepared well enough — or more likely, not thought enough about how to make their points over the phone or down the line.

Media training, though, is all too often based on the assumption that the spokesperson and journalist will meet, and mock interviews are usually carried out over the desk.

Of course, it’s important to be able to handle a face-to-face interview. But it’s far more likely that an expert or executive will end up speaking to a reporter over the phone, than to meet them over a leisurely lunch. That’s even more the case for breaking news, and in crisis communications.

Given all this, training spokespeople to carry out a good phone interview, not to mention a radio “phoner” or a call from a remote contribution unit, should be an essential part of any media training programme.

But setting up a mock phone interview is perfectly possible, if it is done with care. It is, for example, something that we can set up at a client’s site, but it is often more effective to use a studio. That’s especially the case if spokespeople are to be trained for radio, or podcasting too.

ISDN remote contribution unit f

ISDN remote contribution unit for radio interviews.

Our in-house studios in South West London are set up with exactly this in mind: we can record mock phone interviews, interviews over Skype or over broadcast ISDN, but also provide immediate feedback via broadcast-quality video. This gives spokespeople a chance to see what they did well, and where they could improve.

For urgent assignments, we can also carry out interview training entirely remotely, using a video conferencing service, as well as provide tailored training for radio appearance, and for experts who plan to speak on webinars, audiocasts and other live events.

If any of this might fill a gap in your training needs, do contact Stephen Pritchard for more information, or visit our media training site over at ens media.

Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions for ways to improve phone interviews:

  • If at all possible, set aside time to prepare in advance. Make some notes, but keep in mind that bullet points will be more useful than slabs of text.
  • Set aside a quiet room for the call, not your desk. Get set up at least 15 minutes before, and have a glass of water to hand, as well as your notes.
  • If you can’t get to a quiet room, avoid anywhere with a lot of background chat, or music.
  • Avoid speakerphones, they only really work well where several people need to be on a call. Use the handset, or ideally, a headset. Again, mobiles aren’t usually the best option either.
  • If you need to use a conference call, check with the journalist the format that works best, and avoid ones that have international or premium rate calls (in the UK, so-called “local” calls such as 0844/0845 are anything but local rate from a mobile, or even some landlines).
  • Never try to use a phone bridge or conference call of any type for radio.
  • Keep an eye on the time; it helps to ask the journalist how long they have before. Around 15-20 minutes is usually plenty of time for a phone interview, but you want to make sure you make your points, before the journalist runs out of time, or interest!

About stephenpritchard
Freelance journalist specialising in business and technology, based in London (UK).

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