Practicing Interviewing Skills in Unlikely Places

By Emily Hecker

Journalists never can tell when they’ll get an opportunity to practice their interviewing skills. Recently, I started work at D.O.G. Phonathon and discovered a new place to hone my interviewing abilities.

Phonathon callers ring-up alumni and plead for contributions. Before we reach the pleading stage, there is the ‘rapport’ step (so the alumni don’t see the pleading coming). This step is the almighty place for journalists to squeal with delight, because they will be practicing phone interviews.

Phonathon management would slap my wrists for using the term ‘interview’ in place of ‘rapport.’ They insist it be called a conversation rather than an interview. Whatever euphemism is used for it, the rapport phase is essentially an interview.

We begin by asking the alumnus or alumna about his or her Drake experience. A reply is offered. We, the callers, must then produce a follow-up question. Generating good follow-up questions is an art journalists seek to master.

Perhaps your prospect/interviewee ends his or her response with, “And I just loved my professional fraternity.” What would your follow-up question be?

Would it be:

A)   That’s great. So, do you like the Twilight series?


B) That’s wonderful. Tell me about the fraternity. Which one was it?

If you selected option A, may the Phonathon and journalism gods smite you. If you correctly chose B, you must know a thing or two about interviewing.

Decent follow-up questions build on something the prospect/interviewee has just said. It shows that you are listening and engaged. It also lulls them into a false sense of security before bam! You’ve just nailed them with your hard-hitting question about scandal or monetary contributions to the school.

There’s always a purpose for an interview. Whether that purpose is to gain information or money, your ability to engage the subject is what determines the interview’s success.

Practice does make perfect when it comes to interviewing. So, how and where have you practiced your interviewing skills?


7 responses to “Practicing Interviewing Skills in Unlikely Places

  1. I think that this is an interesting topic. I would have never thought about phonathon work as an interview, but after reading your article I definitely can see the similarities. Often, the work that we do at our jobs can be preparing for interviews in many ways.

    I think I practice my interviewing skills everyday. Especially when I am at work, when a new person/customer comes in I have to make them feel like I know what I am talking about and establish myself. I used to be very shy growing up, but now I have definitely become more comfortable with starting up a conversation with people I don’t know. It’s actually something I enjoy now!

    I also think phone interviews are becoming more common, so any conversation on the phone can be practice. Maybe not when you’re talking to your friends, but when you are talking to someone you don’t know over the phone it is important to practice good phone skills. For example, talking slowly and clearly and annunciating each word. You also want to be respectful and thank people for their time. No matter if you’re ordering pizza or interviewing for an internship.

    • Cecily, I think it’s great that you’re also weaving interview practice into your work. Like you, I am also on the shy side, but have learned to open up and converse more easily over the years. Phonathon has definitely been a good way for me to do that.

      I agree that phone interviews are becoming more popular. It can be challenging to find a time for you and your interview subject to sit down face to face. Everyone seems to have a million and one things on their plate, which often leaves phone interviews as the best option.

      Manners, as you said, are also essential in an interview, particularly if you’re asking for money. I’ve discovered just how valuable annunciation can be as well. When I’m talking to alumni who graduated in the 1950s and 60s, they often have a hard time hearing, which makes annunciation all the more important.

  2. I commend you for taking a positive attitude about phonathon and looking at it as an opportunity to develop your interviewing skills. Taking that perspective, I guess I had a couple of telemarketing jobs and a customer service job where I spent a lot of time on the phone and had a chance to develop my phone communication skills. I prefer actual interviewing and getting to know someone without having to ask for money. In that case I am interested and curious to learn what they have to say. I much prefer to be the one asking the questions than the other way around, and I think I sound more professional when I am asking the questions rather than answering questions about myself while feeling tense and nervous because I am hoping to land a job. Does anyone have any tips on how to handle the pressure of being in the position of an interviewee?

    • Dawn, I absolutely agree that interviewing is much more enjoyable without the task of soliciting monetary contributions. Though it is certainly fun learning about alumni and what the university was like in the past, I’d rather not have to end each conversation with three asks for money.

      Being the interviewer rather than the interviewee is also a much easier position to be in. As you said, the interviewer can focus on coaxing out a good response instead of carefully selecting each magic word that will secure a job.

      Though being an interviewee is almost always nerve-racking, doing some research on the company helps. Knowing what the company does makes you look prepared and eager to learn.

      Also, dressing to impress helps. If I’ve got a snazzy business suit on, I feel ready to tackle anything.

  3. Emily, your post expanded my definition of interviewing. Before reading your post, my definition of “interview” involved a notebook, pen and voice recorder. After reading your post, though, I will strive to transform everyday encounters into mock interviews as you do.

    I have practiced my interviewing skills as a Big Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sister program. To communicate effectively with my Little Sister, an elementary schooler, I ask her straightforward, brief questions. I also ask her straightforward, brief follow-up questions. Although my questions don’t concern the public’s welfare, their concise, direct nature mirrors a journalist’s interview. Thanks for revealing a simple, accessible way to improve my interviewing skills outside the newsroom.

    • Taylor, I think it’s wonderful that you are a Big Sister. Not only are you giving back to your community, but you’re also practicing your interviewing. That’s pretty impressive

      At some point in our journalistic careers, our interview subjects will be children. Interviewing children may actually be harder to do than interviewing adults. They tend to give short answers because they have short attention spans. So, how do we get them talking?

  4. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for practicing interviewing skills. The best interviewers are ones that just talk to their subjects. They listen and react. In the way, any opportunity to talk to people is a good one for interviewing.

    I guess I don’t really have of ways to practice interviewing. It’s one of those things you just have to go do. Like I said, anytime you can talk to someone, practice listening, and direct your responses and question is the way you practice interviewing.

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