Can a good phone interview replace face-to-face?

Looking back at last month’s post about real vs. virtual meetings, I got to thinking today about whether virtual interviews are adequate substitutes for the real thing.  Of course it depends on the purpose of the interview. If you need to capture the essence of someone’s personality and mannerisms, then the answer is probably NO. 

But for the most part, as verified by the hundreds of satellite and phone interviews aired on radio and TV every day, my answer is YES. And it absolutely beats trying to construct a story from written documents alone.

A recent case in point:  

One of my clients asked me to create a piece that introduced prospective customers to the unique physical and cultural environment of their sprawling corporate headquarters in the southern U.S.  Of course I jumped at the chance to visit the site and interview its inhabitants face-to-face to learn more — and perhaps squeeze in a round of golf. This was February after all; the month when we typically get the most snow here in the Northeast.

But, my hopes for a short trip and golf outing were swiftly dashed when I learned that the assignment didn’t include travel.  (I also learned that this company is quite frugal  when it comes to sending their consultants on what they deem unnecessary “junkets”.)  I took the assignment anyway, but not without some misgiving about being able to talk convincingly about a place that I’d never seen.  

To my surprise, it worked out remarkably well because the client chose the right people for me to interview.  They were passionate and knowledgeable about the subject, and more than willing to provide the details, diagrams, and anecdotes I needed. (Fortunately, I also discovered great photos of the location through an exhaustive search on the Internet.)

I know the final piece was a better product than what I could have created from written sources alone. And it’s pretty close to what I might have constructed from the onsite interviews that were part of my hoped-for mini-vacation. 

The experience definitely reinforced my belief in the value of a good phone interview.  As health writer Jane Sherwin reminded me in her April newsletter, an effective telephone interview gives you

  • room for new and unexpected topics, angles, opinions to emerge,
  • spontaneity and livelier language than the printed word — and livelier language is always better for readers,
  • richer perspectives and more candor from the interviewees when they sense your interest in the topic and what they have to say about it.

Leave a Reply