Top Tips for Online/Telephone Interviewing
Switching to online or telephone interviews during this lockdown period is a fantastic way to keep your business moving without the need for face-to-face contact. It sounds simple enough and surely it’s pretty much the same as carrying out a face-to-face interview, right? In theory yes, but there are several things to consider in order to produce a high-quality audio recording that can be used to create an accurate transcript.
I’m certainly no expert on the technical side of recording interviews so I won’t go into the different devices or software that can be used, but as a full-time audio transcriber I’d like to offer some advice and tips based on my experience of transcribing these interviews.
Where to carry out the interview
The first thing to consider is the room you are conducting your interview from. A large spacious room with little-to-no soft furnishings might be the ideal work environment but it can actually affect the quality of the recording. Echoes can really distort a recording and impact what a transcriber can hear. Another key thing is to close windows and doors. It’s amazing how well a recording device picks up traffic noise and, even though it’s background noise, it can drown out vital information during an interview. Even birdsong and wind or rain can affect how much dialogue can be heard.
So try to aim for a comfortable room with a door that you can close to external noise, closed windows, and don’t forget to think about where you’re going to sit. You’ll be there for around an hour, maybe more, so you’ll want to be comfortable. If you’re doing a video call, try to think about what’s behind you. You probably don’t want your respondent distracted by looking at your household ironing pile!
Another thing to consider is what you do during the interview. As tempting as it is to get on with the odd job while you’re working from home – quickly filling the dishwasher, boiling the kettle, typing up an email, tidying your desk or opening your mail – all of these can, and will, drown out what your respondent is saying. It is also very distracting for all involved and can interrupt the flow of the interview, meaning you probably won’t get the best out of your respondent.
Finally, on this subject, eating or drinking might not affect a normal telephone call but when you have a recording device attached to your phone, you want it to pick up every single sound made by your respondent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t discriminate, so the sound of you swallowing, chewing or even just pouring a drink can result in the respondent’s speech being drowned out.
Now you’ve got your room set up it’s time to carry out the interview. Before contacting your respondent, have a practice run with a friend or colleague. Record a short conversation and make sure that you can both be heard and that all your preparations have paid off. There’s nothing we like less than having to hand a recording back because, while we can hear you beautifully, the respondent’s voice hasn’t been picked up at all or is too muffled or distant. We want to provide the best service we can to you but we can’t type what we can’t hear. It would be such a shame for you to carry out an interview, gathering all of the information you require, only for none of it to have been recorded.
If possible, arrange with your respondent to phone them a few minutes early. This will give you some time to do a test run and offer advice if needed. Quite often when people know they are being recorded, they change the way they speak or the way they hold the phone without realising it. If they hold the phone too close to their mouth their voice will be muffled and distorted, resulting in a transcript full of [unclear word] markers – which no one wants. We really don’t like not being able to give you a complete transcript and you really don’t like not having all of the information on paper. During an interview people tend to swap the hand they’re holding the phone in. If this happens and you feel their voice may be muffled as a result, don’t be afraid to gently remind them to adjust it. You want the recording to be clear all the way through and something as simple as this could prevent that.
It’s also worth asking them to put their mobile phone on silent mode (and yours too!) so the conversation isn’t interrupted by pings and ringtones. If you’re speaking via computers it can be difficult to have every alert tone turned off and still be able to hear the other person, but try to mute as many as possible. You’d be surprised by how many email notifications can appear during a two-sided conversation in an hour!
Recording devices are set up to record the sound closest to them, as often that is what you are after. However, a lot of the time they cut out the other sounds altogether. This means that while you’re listening, if you say, ‘Hmm’, ‘Yes’ or other encouraging sounds you will often completely obscure what the respondent is saying. This can be a tricky balance as you want your respondent to know you’re interested in what they’re saying, but without facial expressions that can be hard to convey. Try to keep this encouragement to natural pauses in their speech so you don’t end up missing something they mention. If you need to interrupt them to ask a question or to bring them back to the original point, bear this in mind, too. If you’re speaking at the same time, one of you won’t be heard. Try saying something like, ‘Can I…?’ before making your point as this should give them the prompt to finish what they’re saying, resulting in both of you being able to be heard when you go on to ask your question.
Taking notes during an interview is often essential but can lead to audio issues. Pencils can be the worst culprits; they make a surprising amount of noise when near a recording device! The best way to make notes during a recording is to use a pen on a pad of paper so the sound is cushioned. That might sound ridiculous but I’ve had files where I’ve had to mark chunks of speech as [unclear words] all because of a pencil!
While we completely understand that you can’t possibly remember every question or prompt for an entire interview, please try to avoid shuffling your papers. Often, you’ll be searching for a particular point because something the respondent said has prompted you to check a detail, or the interview is so interesting that you need to keep track of where you’re at. The trouble is, shuffling the papers is the most common cause of speech being lost when it comes to transcribing phone and video interviews. That missing content could contain the crucial information you need for your research.
Ultimately, I think we are so fortunate to be living in a time when we have all of this technology to enable us to continue working in the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in today. So stay safe and happy interviewing.
Oh, and if the thought of receiving a complete transcript isn’t tempting enough, I’ll gladly offer up my firstborn to anyone who follows this advice to the letter – he cooks and hoovers and makes a mean cup of tea!