Friday, November 25, 2016

Strategies for Conducting Interviews over the Phone

Well, it looks like I'll make it through National Novel Writing Month without accidentally writing a novel. Again! My guess is that I never will write fiction (much as I enjoy reading it). Every now and then, though, someone will ask if I think I'll write another book.

Both Through Her Eyes and Crossing Cultures with Ruth dropped in my lap, the first from a couple of busy cross-cultural workers in Central Asia who knew the stories of women like them ought to be told, and second as a write-for-hire job from a ministry that knew I was a fan of their initial book and had what it took to expand it. In both cases my job was to collect and pass along the wisdom and experience of others rather than any of my own. This I was happy to do.

In fact, it's the main way I've used my writing and editing skills these last 20+ years, usually writing without a byline and often in collaboration with a team or partner who had a message to share but needed help putting it into words. These days, it's mostly articles for the web and email publications.

If you count all the notetaking, editing, and writing these last few weeks, I may have exceeded the 50,000-word goal of NaNoWriMo this month. But the bigger breakthrough for me is this:

I finally assembled the right tools and strategies for getting rich interviews over the phone and capturing the content effectively and efficiently.
  1. A good list of contacts engaged with the topic I'm writing about.
  2. Access to contact data that helps me track them down.
  3. Carefully timed emails asking for a 15-minute phone call to pick their brain and hear the story.
  4. A new headset that allows me to talk and type comfortably, gracefully, and simultaneously. 
In the past, I'd tried using Skype. But that didn't work very well for me. The audio-only phone connection may make rapport more difficult but eases the work on other fronts: I don't have to maintain eye contact and non-verbal cues but can focus fully on capturing what is said. Moreover, several people I've interviewed have taken the call on the road, putting on their own headsets to redeem drive time on some boring stretch of highway. I think it set them at ease and made them more generous with their time than if we'd been using something like Skype or Facetime.

Another factor I'd considered was finding a way to record the interviews and then transcribe them, but the transcription process takes more time than I think I can give and actually slows down the writing process as well, so I'm glad to "settle" for copious notes, instead (though they still need to be cleaned up and organized). 

During Caleb Project days, we nearly always worked in pairs, and while it required both teamwork and discipline, the results were great; one person would lead the interview while the other madly but quietly scribbled notes (and then typed them up later).

Trying to replicate this solo hasn't worked well for me. My notes weren't as good and my rapport wasn't either, and the time it took to type them up and fill in the gaps was considerable. Bringing a laptop or tablet for notetaking made for more complete and accurate notes. It was a little better for rapport, too, since I can type without watching what I'm doing, but my laptop is both too big and it was still a a barrier. I was looking for a new approach. And this one works well.

The folks I've interviewed seemed to enjoy it too. None of them has seemed ready to stop after 15 minutes, but have typically given me 30-60 minutes. After all, I'm giving them the chance to talk about things they're passionate about. I've made sure to tell them how grateful I was for their time and made sure to pray with them and for them about the things they shared.

This new strategy may make interviewing over the phone (despite my lifelong aversion to making phone calls) more effective than video conferencing or even talking face to face. Had I put these pieces together sooner, I'm sure my Master's thesis could have been better; I'd left the door open for follow-up phone interviews but failed to follow through since I didn't have an efficient strategy for making it work.

But all this gives me hope for future research and writing projects using phone interviews.

Who knows, maybe even something that will take the form of a book.