Long-distance interviews

    HOW TO

  • Make the most of research-related phone calls 
  • Bridge the distance using techniques that are different from in-person interviews

While we tend to think of them as one and the same, long-distance interviewsconducted via phone, video call, and other messaging platformscan present very different challenges than in-person interactions. Researchers and interviewees often feel more comfortable with one or the other, depending on their personality, the topic, and geographic location. The techniques involved in each are related but distinct: from how you present yourself to how you guide the conversation, take notes, and manage security considerations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sent much of the world into lockdown, Synaps polled its team to discuss how everyone approaches remote interviews. We quickly agreed that—although in-person meetings have clear advantages, such as building a personal connection and limiting security concerns that arise with remote correspondence—long-distance exchanges come with benefits of their own, regardless of the extraordinary circumstances which make them an indispensable fallback strategy.

For one, long-distance interviews can be wonderfully efficient: Neither party needs to commit to travelling nor to tailoring their appearance to suit the occasion. As Haley put it: “Phone interviews save time, and can help make an eventual face-to-face encounter more personable and productive.” This can also lower the stakes and reduce pressure on the researcher: It’s much easier to deal with a cancelled phone call than a cancelled meeting around which you arranged a whole day, or perhaps even a whole trip.

Long-distance interviews can be wonderfully efficient

Relatedly, remote interviews often lend themselves toward conversations that get straight to the point. While small-talk, coffee, and meandering conversations form a valuable part of building rapport in face-to-face meetings, removing them from the equation can help boil the interaction down to its essence. “Phone conversations are more direct,” said a Syrian fellow, in her own typically straightforward style. “In-person conversations often go off in unrelated directions. On the phone, there’s a clear, well-defined purpose.” Particularly for female researchers, remote conversations can have the added benefit of reining in the risk of harassment or other unwanted attention.

To make the most of these advantages while minimizing the downsides of remote fieldwork, the team laid out a number of best practices:

  • State your case. Like remote interviews themselves, requests for phone calls should be direct and to the point. Specify what you hope to get from the exchange, and suggest specific times that would work. From there, you can test different ways of framing the conversation to make it appealing: Maybe reference some intriguing research of your own or frame the phone call as a precursor to an in-person meeting farther down the line. Where possible, a third-party introduction may be the best starting point.
  • Embrace rejection. Requesting phone calls is, at the end of the day, a numbers game. For each precious interview that you carry out, you’ll likely get several rejections and a couple of conversations that don’t help your research much. Accepting this ratio and forging ahead will pay off in the long run.
  • Be warm. Because remote communication creates a barrier to personal connection, it is all the more important to be lively and engaged. “Make jokes, share something about the location you’re in,” suggested a Syrian fellow. Peter shared another tip, which he picked up while being interviewed by the late, great journalist Anthony Shadid: “Anthony had a way of repeating the phrase ‘so true,’ throughout an interview. It always felt very genuine, as if I’d managed to convey something useful. That would egg me on.”
  • Be prepared. Phone calls arguably require even more preparation than in-person interviews: It’s just your voice and the interviewee’s, with no body language or in-person chemistry to lean on for cues. Consider keeping a list of interview questions in front of you, which is less awkward on a phone call.
  • Guide the conversation. For the same reason, phone calls can be tricky to manage gracefully: If you ask a question and it falls flat, you’ll get no hints from the other person to see what’s going through his or her mind. “Silence is much easier to manage in person than on a call,” said James. He added: “Think carefully about using open rather than closed questioning to keep the conversation going.” That way, you will provide your interviewee with plenty of space to take things in different directions.
  • Minimize distractions. Predict and preempt factors that could disrupt your call: Look for a quiet space to sit, and avoid typing notes unless you’re confident your microphone will not pick up the noise. Likewise try to avoid speakerphone, which can cause a disconcerting echo. For calls that require internet, be sure you have a decent connection. If calls keep breaking up or getting interrupted, it’s usually best to reschedule rather than keep fighting through interruptions. Last, resist the urge to multitask: Glancing at emails or texts will inevitably undercut your focus, and you’d be surprised how easily your distraction may alienate the person at the other end of the line.
  • Research, in the end, consists in bridging the distance

  • Short is beautiful. While it can be tempting to draw out a remote interview to squeeze the most out of the interaction, plenty of calls may take a mere 15 to 30 minutes to accomplish what you set out for. By embracing brevity, you’ll save yourself and your interlocutor time while setting the stage for further such interactions down the road.
  • Test different platforms. Different media will work best for different contexts and individuals. While phone calls are a vital tool, voice recordings also have their advantages: They allow your interlocutor to respond on his or her own time, and help circumvent the challenges posed by weak internet. Written exchanges can also be useful, but bear in mind that some interlocutors may not be comfortable reading and writing; if in doubt, start with audio.
  • Tackle security concerns proactively. From a security perspective, remote interviews are a double-edged sword. On one side, they may spare both the researcher and the interviewee the risks entailed when traveling through dicey territory and being seen together in public in an authoritarian regime. Yet they also expose you to digital surveillance, which can be even more threatening. As such, it is essential to do your homework regarding the most secure modes of communication, while taking basic precautions in terms of what you do and don’t discuss digitally. If operating in a sensitive context, use a good VPN. If your interlocutor seems on edge about security risks, consider addressing explicitly your approach to keeping the exchange safe.
  • Follow up. A final benefit of remote interviews is that they create a strong basis for digital follow-up, particularly in the age of smartphones. After a phone call, a simple message to express appreciation will help cement a good first impression, and make it easier to ask additional questions or offer links to relevant websites or articles. Indeed, some interviewees will follow up and share additional material of their own accord.

Research, in the end, consists in bridging the distance that separates us from an intimate understanding of our topic. Phone calls are another way of doing just that.

2 April 2020

Related content