Jenna Glatzer is an internationally-published freelance writer and the editor of Absolute Write (http://www.absolutewrite.com/). She is also the author of OUTWITTING WRITER'S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN, which you can read about here: http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm
Oh, how I shuddered the first time an article necessitated that I actually phone a complete stranger and ask a bunch of questions.
I’m not a phone person. I had done e-mail interviews, mostly to glean a few facts or quick quotes, but the phone intimidated me. I always worried that I would be calling right in the middle of someone’s dinner/meeting/deadline crunch/meditation time. And, no matter how hard I tried, I just knew I sounded like a telemarketer. A twelve-year-old telemarketer.
The assignment: "Top 10 Catering Halls For a Long Island Wedding."
The problem: In order to select these ten halls, I would have to compare prices, menus, atmosphere, staff, and other such features. Given my paltry fee and quick deadline, it was impractical for me to visit all of the halls on Long Island. Instead, I surfed the ‘net, consulted lots of local bridal guides, and spoke to friends in the wedding industry for recommendations until I had narrowed the list to about 20. Then I made charts of the information I knew—in some cases, I already had most of the necessary information, and in others, I had very little. In every case, though, I had to speak to a human being to fill in the gaps.
With my list of phone numbers and crinkly, sweaty chart in hand, I started dialing.
"Hi, um, I’m Jenna Glatzer, and I’m a freelance writer, and I’m writing this article called ‘Top 10 Catering Halls For a Long Island Wedding’ for Bliss e-zine, which is an online bridal magazine, and it has a special section for New York weddings, and you can see it at www…"
I hope you’re cringing by now.
If not, you should be, and here’s why: I didn’t need to get into any of that, especially not in the beginning. All I needed to convey at the start of this conversation was:
"I’m writing an article about Long Island catering halls, and I’d like to speak with the owner or manager."
Sure, you may feel the need to justify yourself more in the beginning. You may want to prove your credentials, and explain exactly what you’re writing, why you’re writing it, and who will read it, but it’s not necessary. It’s not even smart. Most likely, it will provoke a lot of unnecessary questions from your listener, and it will make you sound nervous and inexperienced. Instead, sound as professional and busy as your interviewee. Your time is valuable, too!
Your goal at the onset of a cold call is to get connected with the proper interview candidate as soon as possible. Then, once you’ve gotten through, your next goal is to get into the interview questions as soon as possible.
Yes, explain a little bit about what you’re doing, and how this person’s comments will be used. But don’t make your life harder and your phone bill higher by giving all of your life details. At the end, you can give the interviewee a reminder (or, better yet, send it by mail or e-mail) about where and when the article will appear. If you’re super-nice, you can even send your interviewee a published copy.
But, back to the interview.
The first time you pick up that phone, be prepared to conduct the interview on the spot. This may or may not actually happen, but be sure you’re set in case the person says, "Great. Go right ahead."
This means that you should have a pad of paper, at least two pens (in case one dies!), your list of questions, and a phone recording device hooked up and ready to go. (Mine is the Sony Cassette Corder, a bargain-priced device that's never given me a problem.)
However, your interviewee may well want to schedule the interview for a later time or date, so you should also have your handy pocket calendar ready.
If you haven’t conducted many interviews before, there’s no better way to practice than by doing a "test run." Call a friend and ask him or her to play the part of your interviewee. Ask your questions and let him or her make up answers. This should help you practice your patter, and it should help you practice shorthand!
Ah, yes, shorthand is important. Even when you are tape recording a conversation, you must always take notes. Tapes get eaten. Machines fail. You need a back-up.
So, practice jotting down your friend’s responses to your questions. See how fast you can write, and how accurate your notes are. Later, transcribe your notes to see if you got the bulk of the conversation written accurately, and if you can read your own handwriting!
It took me quite a bit of practice to get the knack of note-taking. Sort of like in science class, I had to learn not to try to write down every single word out of the speaker’s mouth, thereby skipping large sections as I struggled to catch up. Instead, listen carefully for key points and necessary information.
When you feel comfortable with your line of questioning and your note-taking ability, it’s time to make that call. To boost your confidence, remember the following:
Almost EVERYONE is dying to be interviewed by you.
(Repeat as necessary.)
I'm not kidding. People love to talk about themselves. It makes them feel important when a writer wants to print their opinions, research, business information, etc. It also lends them credibility in their own work. You don’t have to convince anyone to talk to you. You’re offering them a great opportunity for exposure, and if they choose not to take it, there will be a dozen more people who will jump at the chance to replace them. You hold the upper hand. Anyone you call is very lucky to get that call.
Here’s a good example of how your conversation should go:
Worker: Hello. Rosey Florist.
You: Hi. I’m Jill, and I’m writing an article for Mango Mama Magazine about current trends in floral arrangements. May I speak with the owner?
Worker: Hang on.
Owner: Yes, can I help you?
You: Hi, I’m Jill, and I’m writing an article for Mango Mama Magazine about current trends in floral arrangements. I’m calling because I’d like to interview you for the article.
Owner: Oh, that would be great.
You: Good! Is this a good time, or would you like to set up a time for us to talk?
Owner: Well, the shop is kind of busy right now. Can you call after 4?
You: How’s 4:30?
You: Okay, and what’s your name again?
You: Thanks, Marge. I’ll call back at 4:30.
Ta-da. (Make sure you get her name, so you don’t have to start all over again, explaining yourself to another worker.)
Now, there are many variations possible. If you have to leave a message, make sure the message-taker gets down the essential information-- that is, you are a writer, and would like to interview this person for an article. If your interviewee wants more information about what you're writing, you may have to get into a bit more detail (she may want to make sure you're not going to say bad things about her, or she may want to make sure she's qualified to answer the questions you'll ask).
In a case like the above, it’s probably not necessary for the interviewee to see questions ahead of time, but if you’re approaching a complex or personal subject, it’s a good idea to offer the interviewee a list of general questions that you plan to ask, or topics you plan to cover. You can offer to send them via e-mail or fax prior to the interview. This gives your interviewee time to think about his or her answers, and it means you’ll both be on the same page when you begin.
Obviously, you don’t want to do this if you’re doing investigative reporting, or looking for candid answers to tough questions. A prepared interviewee can be a canned interviewee, so be sure to mix it up and ask some questions that are not on your sheet.
If you’re still not confident about making cold calls (phone calls without an invitation), warm yourself up by approaching a few people by e-mail or fax first. In a few sentences, explain who you are and why you’d like to speak with the interview candidate. Then ask for a response that indicates a good time to call.
See how many positive responses you get, and watch how quickly that interview-phobia disappears!