Tips for Interview Phobia

by Jenna Glatzer

Oh, how I shuddered the first time an article necessitated that I actuallyphone 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 fewfacts or quick quotes, but the phone intimidated me. I always worried that Iwould be calling right in the middle of someone’s dinner/meeting/deadlinecrunch/meditation time. And, no matter how hard I tried, I just knew I soundedlike 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 compareprices, menus, atmosphere, staff, and other such features. Given my paltry feeand quick deadline, it was impractical for me to visit all of the halls on LongIsland. Instead, I surfed the ‘net, consulted lots of local bridal guides, andspoke to friends in the wedding industry for recommendations until I hadnarrowed the list to about 20. Then I made charts of the information I knew—insome cases, I already had most of the necessary information, and in others, Ihad very little. In every case, though, I had to speak to a human being to fillin the gaps.


With my list of phone numbers and crinkly, sweaty chart in hand, I starteddialing.

"Hi, um, I’m Jenna Glatzer, and I’m a freelance writer, and I’mwriting 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 specialsection 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 ofthat, especially not in the beginning. All I needed to convey at the start ofthis conversation was:

"I’m writing an article about Long Island catering halls, and I’d liketo speak with the owner or manager."


Sure, you may feel the need to justify yourself more in the beginning. Youmay 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’snot even smart. Most likely, it will provoke a lot of unnecessary questions fromyour 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 properinterview 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’scomments will be used. But don’t make your life harder and your phone billhigher by giving all of your life details. At the end, you can give theinterviewee a reminder (or, better yet, send it by mail or e-mail) about whereand when the article will appear. If you’re super-nice, you can even send yourinterviewee a published copy.

But, back to the interview.

The first time you pick up that phone, be prepared to conduct the interviewon the spot. This may or may not actually happen, but be sure you’re set incase the person says, "Great. Go right ahead."

This means that you should have a pad of paper, at least two pens (in caseone dies!), your list of questions, and a phone recording device hooked up andready to go.  (Mine is the Sony Cassette Corder, a bargain-priced devicethat's never given me a problem.)

However, your interviewee may well want to schedule the interview for a latertime 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 topractice than by doing a "test run." Call a friend and ask him or herto play the part of your interviewee. Ask your questions and let him or her makeup answers. This should help you practice your patter, and it should help youpractice shorthand!

Ah, yes, shorthand is important. Even when you are tape recording aconversation, you must always take notes. Tapes get eaten. Machines fail. Youneed a back-up.

So, practice jotting down your friend’s responses to your questions. Seehow fast you can write, and how accurate your notes are. Later, transcribe yournotes to see if you got the bulk of the conversation written accurately, and ifyou can read your own handwriting!

It took me quite a bit of practice to get the knack of note-taking. Sort oflike in science class, I had to learn not to try to write down every single wordout of the speaker’s mouth, thereby skipping large sections as I struggled tocatch up. Instead, listen carefully for key points and necessary information.

When you feel comfortable with your line of questioning and your note-takingability, it’s time to make that call. To boost your confidence, remember thefollowing:

Almost EVERYONE is dying to be interviewed by you.

(Repeat as necessary.)

I'm not kidding.  People love to talk about themselves. It makes themfeel important when a writer wants to print their opinions, research, businessinformation, etc. It also lends them credibility in their own work. You don’thave to convince anyone to talk to you. You’re offering them a greatopportunity for exposure, and if they choose not to take it, there will be adozen more people who will jump at the chance to replace them. You hold theupper 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 Magazineabout 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 Magazineabout current trends in floral arrangements. I’m calling because I’d like tointerview 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 totalk?

Owner: Well, the shop is kind of busy right now. Can you call after 4?

You: How’s 4:30?

Owner: Perfect.

You: Okay, and what’s your name again?

Owner: Marge.

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 overagain, explaining yourself to another worker.)

Now, there are many variations possible. If you have to leave a message, makesure the message-taker gets down the essential information-- that is, you are awriter, and would like to interview this person for an article.  If yourinterviewee wants more information about what you're writing, you may have toget into a bit more detail (she may want to make sure you're not going to saybad things about her, or she may want to make sure she's qualified to answer thequestions you'll ask).

In a case like the above, it’s probably not necessary for the intervieweeto see questions ahead of time, but if you’re approaching a complex orpersonal subject, it’s a good idea to offer the interviewee a list of generalquestions that you plan to ask, or topics you plan to cover. You can offer tosend them via e-mail or fax prior to the interview. This gives your intervieweetime to think about his or her answers, and it means you’ll both be on thesame page when you begin.

Obviously, you don’t want to do this if you’re doing investigativereporting, or looking for candid answers to tough questions. A preparedinterviewee can be a canned interviewee, so be sure to mix it up and ask somequestions that are not on your sheet.

If you’re still not confident about making cold calls (phone calls withoutan invitation), warm yourself up by approaching a few people by e-mail or faxfirst. In a few sentences, explain who you are and why you’d like to speakwith the interview candidate. Then ask for a response that indicates a good timeto call. See how many positive responses you get, and watch how quickly thatinterview-phobia disappears!

Reprinted with permission.

Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of, where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of Outwitting Writer's Block and Other Problemsof the Pen and other books for writers, which you can read about at: if you want to make her day.