How to get people to talk to you on the telephone

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

Being out here in China, where there’s a huge shortage of experienced English-speaking business reporters, I frequently have to hire staff with no reporting experience at all and train them up from scratch.

The first question every since new hire has is: “How do I get people to talk to me?”
This is often accompanies by, “This is China. People don’t like talking to strangers, and they especially don’t like talking to foreigners.”

The problem, of course, isn’t limited to China — or, in my experience, any worse in China than anywhere else.

I remember one old reporter in the cubicle next to mine back when I worked at a big national…well, never mind about the details. He hated his job, and he hated his beat. Every day he would tell me something like, “People suck. Nobody returns their messages anymore. I wish I was still covering sports.” Then he’d make his next call. Remarkably, the guy survived several rounds of layoffs and has been in that same job for something like a decade now, though he’s lost most of his hair.

Me, I love talking on the phone and always have the feeling that everybody always returns my calls. One year, I was named by some PR organization as the journalist who quoted the most analysts that year.

What’s my secret?

Well, when I first became a freelancer sometime in the dark ages (pre-Internet) I read some books about sales and marketing, thinking they would help me sell more articles. They did, but I also learned something else – getting a good quote from a new source is a lot like making a cold sales call.

Think about it:

When you call someone for a story, you’re usually interrupting something else that they are doing, which is almost always more important to them.
Sales guy: Check.

When you call someone, they don’t really need you.
Sales guy: Yup.

If they ignore you, you go away.
Sales: guy Same thing.

When you pester and annoy someone for a quote, they might talk to you to get rid of you — but they’ll try hard to avoid your calls in the future.
Sales: Ditto.

Yes, reporters serve a higher calling than used vacuum cleaner salesmen. But we’re not better than, say, folks selling tickets to a charity event to end world hunger.

And, face it, our reputation with the general public is not that much better than that of salespeople. (It it better at all? God, I hope it’s better.)

Anyway, salespeople use a few techniques to get past people’s initial “sales resistance” when they hear that it’s them on the phone.

The most important trick: be happy.

Happy salespeople sell more stuff than miserable salespeople. You can just look at a guy and tell by his attitude how much he’s selling.

This works in journalism, too. If you’re happy, people will be more willing to talk to you. Even the most miserable, depressed sources will be cheered up a little by you, and will start to look forward to your calls.

So how do you get happy?

The following tricks will sound hocky, but they work. Salespeople use them, and they see results right away in terms of money in their pocket, so they do a lot of research on what works and what doesn’t work.


* Keep a picture of something you love next to the phone. Look at it before your call and go, “awwww.”
* Right before a call, play (or sing) a cheery tune.
* Go to the bathroom, check that nobody else is around, look in the mirror, and say, “You go, big guy!” Or, “You rock, you hot chick you!” Snap a finger and point at yourself in that cheesy ’70s way. Giggle. Try not to get caught.
* Pretend your back is acting up — hell, you’ve been sitting at the computer all day, your back *is* acting up. Stand up, stretch your arms way up, bend down to touch your toes, then stretch out again. Rotate your shoulders and shake your arms. When people stare, motion at your back, or whisper “carpal tunnel.” Feel the renewed flow of energy through your body and the rush of blood to your head.
* Juggle. Good for the arms, and you’ll look stupid when the balls or wads of paper go flying and people will laugh at you. Eventually, to seem cool, you’ll join them.
* Smile. A really big cheesy smile. Even a fake smile will make you happier.
* Lift your chin. This seems stupid, but some telemarketing firms are actually putting the computer monitors up above the desks so people have to look up to them. When you look up, your voice will sound brighter, and you will seem happier. Try it.

The next big thing that salespeople do is play the numbers game. The basic principle of the numbers game is you have a certain response rate. Say, 10% of people want to talk to you. That means, if you need three quotes, you need to call 30 people. Before you start calling, make a list of those people.

Otherwise, you will get into the following situation:

You need a quote. You think of someone to call. You call them with your fingers cross, hoping they’ll talk. They’re not in. You leave a message and sit and wait for them to call back. You get more and more discourage. The editor comes over and yells at you. You explain you’re waiting for answers. You call your source back. They tell you they can’t talk. You hang up and grumble and complain. Then you think of another person to call. And you repeat the process.

Instead, get the list of people first. Now call everyone on the list, leaving a cheerful, direct and to the point message with each person, explaining who you are and what you’re looking for. I typically say something like “Hi, I’m a journalist with ABC, and I’m working on a story about the alphabet. Do you have a few minutes to talk about this?” Even if I’ve talked to them before, I always introduce myself fully — that way, people don’t have to be embarrassed about forgetting who I am. If they can’t talk right away, I ask for a time when I call back. If they’re not the right person, I ask if they can recommend someone else who is. If they can talk right then, fine. Otherwise, I thank them and move right on to the next person on the list. The sooner they say “no” (or “yes”) the sooner I get through the list, so no individual “no” can get me down.

After I started playing this numbers game, I found that my response rates shot up immediately. I guess people can feel that you have a plan and *will* get a quote from somebody, so they might as well be the one to talk. Or maybe you just sound more confident. Whatever it is, it works.

Sales techniques been studied a million times more than reporters’ calling techniques — probably because of all the money in sales. And hardly any money in journalism.

So you can pick up a lot of great advice by hopping over to the dark side — just for a bit, as a spy. And only to use their great powers for good, not evil.

Here are a few places to start:

Inc. Magazine’s Cold Calls resource center
Microsoft’s Small Business Center: 7 tips for turning cold calls into hot leads
AllBusiness: Telesales
Shamus Brown Professional Sales Tips: Cold Calling Tips Sales Training
Business Know How: Ten Tips for Telephone qualifying Success
1099: Warming Up to Cold Calls
Eric Wolfram’s Writing: How To Sell — Getting appointments by Cold Calling and Scripts
Is4Profit: Making a Sales Cold Call

Signing off — with a smile! – in Shanghai,