Calling a Stranger is the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Career

In conversation I had with Mel Kleiman, HR expert and founder of Humetrics, he mentioned that the best employees are the type who do their entire job, even the parts they don’t like, without complaint. Their motivation to succeed, no matter the job, overrides the inclination to shrug and say “that’s not in my job description” or “I won’t do that.”

This made me start thinking about the parts of my job that sometimes feel daunting, but I do anyways. Even after six years of this, there’s one thing that up until very recently used to cripple me: phone calls.

Conducting Phone Interviews in Journalism

I love people. I love meeting with people, face to face, making that connection. In person, I can fine-tune my questions and answers based on my companion’s mannerisms. I can identify whether they’re tired, confused, or bored. Over the phone, it’s a whole different game. I feel socially blind. I start to sweat. I second guess everything. I say “um” way more than any self-respecting writer should.

Yet, sourcing primary information from humans is a huge part of my job. Here’s how I’ve worked to (mostly) overcome the challenges of conducting phone interviews and group meetings.

Warm up.

Making power poses, guzzling water, chewing gum, bellowing war cries, any of these things can help boost confidence and prep your vocal chords before you hit “dial.” Sure, you’re not going on stage for your grand opera debut, but for those with even the slightest anxiety, it can feel like it. Get yourself into good physical and mental shape beforehand and it’ll show through the call.

Have something to look at.

Whether you’re screen sharing or rattling off a list of questions, it helps to be engaged in something. I like to take notes even when I’m recording my call, as I find it makes me a more engaged listener. Even idly holding a pen in your hand can help with focus.

Record your calls.

I used to go low-tech: speakerphone, with a video camera recording the audio. However, I started regularly using free conference tool Uberconference after a while, and it was a game changer. It has a “record call” function that has — so far — been completely reliable, and of incredibly good quality. The downside is that it’s required two of my clients to download Chrome to use it. However, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks. For one, it’s free. Secondly, it stores my call recordings so I don’t have to mess with uploading video or audio files. Also, it has a super clean, intuitive interface with screen sharing.

Review your recording.

I know people who cringe at the thought of hearing their own voice on playback, but trust me, this is the quickest path to banishing the “um” monster, training yourself away from that girlish giggle, or whatever idiosyncrasy threatens to disarm your professionalism. I didn’t realize, until I heard my voice on a call three years ago, that I pronounced my name “Am-eeeaaaa-nda.” Now it’s straight “Ah-man-duh,” every time.

Listen more and don’t fear dead air.

I used to repeat facts and statements back to my interviewees to reassure them of my diligent listening, but it recently hit me that I get a lot more out of these conversations when I just shut the hell up. This isn’t a contest to see who can be wittier or think faster. It’s a conversation, and the other person is gracious enough to share their expertise with you, so let them! Silences feel like forever on phone calls because of the blindness to facial features, but trust me, that hum on the line isn’t going on anywhere near as long as you think it is. Give it a try, and you’ll find that some of the best soundbites come along right as you were about to change the topic.

The key to good journalism interviews: listen more. Click To Tweet

Whether you are hoping to get into investigative journalism, content marketing, or travel writing, it’s essential to know how to interact with people in a way that will make your writing rich and salable.

And if you, like me, tend to interact more with plants than humans, take heart: interviewing a stranger isn’t even half as bad as the time you had to call the utility company about the problem on your last bill, and you survived that, you brave, beautiful human.

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