How to Do Phone Interviews

By George Merlis Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fundamentals -- Telephone  Interviews

At the risk of revealing my age, when I began in journalism the publisher of my newspaper, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, calculated it cost us about $7 an hour to cover a news story while it cost the local television stations $70 an hour.  An added benefit, he said, was that we inky wretches working the telephones could cover more than one story in an hour, while our broadcast rarely could because they had to be on the scene of news in order to get film of the event or interview. And that also meant having four people on the scene  -- a reporter, cameraman, soundman and lighting man. (I am not being politically insensitive; I am being accurate.  Back then the latter three always were male.)

Today, with newspaper staffs shrinking, there is even more reliance on the phone for print news-gathering. And nowadays when they get an assignment, radio reporters, too, reach for the phone more often than they reach for their car keys.  That’s a good thing for media outlets’ bottom lines and a great thing for us, their interview subjects.

In The Weekly Media Trainer, Part 3 and The Weekly Media Trainer, Part 4, I wrote about the importance of formulating an agenda for each of your media interviews, and of making that agenda come alive with word devices I call grabbers.

The “phoner” is a comfortable format for deploying and sticking to your agenda because it is an open book test.  Of course, an open book test does you no good unless you have a book and you’ve opened it.  To that end, here’s what I recommend my media training clients do when they are interviewed over the phone:

1.    Write out the four or five points of your agenda on separate index cards. And don’t forget a url for more information.
2.    Create a grabber for each agenda message point -- an analogy, a comparison, a startling statistic or fact, a brief anecdote, etc. -- and write them on the cards under each message point.
3.    Arrange the cards on your desk next to the phone and call the reporter.
4.    As you deploy each message point, turn the card over.  This will prevent you from hitting any one point repeatedly at the expense of the other points.  When all the cards are turned over, turn them back and feel free to hit them again (don’t reuse the grabbers).

Notice I said call the reporter. “But what,” you say, “if the reporter calls out of the blue and wants to talk right away?”  Simple, insist on calling back.  You need time to prepare. Don’t be cowed into doing an interview without preparation If the reporter says he’s on deadline.  More often than not, it’s not true. When I was a cub reporter,  I sat next to a grizzled old veteran whose every phone call began with the words, “Jim Howard, World-Telegram and Sun.  I’m on deadline....”  From first call in the morning to last call in the evening, Jim was always on deadline.  Why?  He didn’t want to be bothered calling someone back or waiting for the interview subject to call him back.  Whatever the reason for an on-deadline call, the problem is not yours, it’s the reporters.  Just be firm and tell him you’ll call back.  Then prepare your index cards and call back.

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