Silence! Is Voice a Killer App or Huge Distraction?

Image via spDuchamp on Flickr

I started my journalism career in radio, so I have a bit of a bias toward sound.  Nothing, not TV, not print, not Twitter, not Facebook, can convey as much information, texture and beauty as the human voice.

For this reason, radio tends to be a relatively tight medium with short stories, quick soundbites and audio cues that give you a lot of information fast. A radio journalism professor of mine once commented that you can tell the history of the world in 3 minutes.

She's close. It may take 5.

Some people talk better than they write (though, admittedly, some write better than they talk) because for many of us it's a much more natural way of communicating. Even as babies it was our primary way of taking in information and our second way of conveying information (gesturing came first). Writing comes long after.

So I'm always surprised when I hear that journalists don't want to answer phones. I understand that they are often overwhelmed with calls or, as Robin Wauters points out, that phone calls aren't searchable. It's a fair issue. Though, recording and transcribing technologies can fix some of that. (Paul Carr's "I'm quitting breathing" reaction is killer, by the way.)

I still find phone to be an extrodinarily useful tool, both inbound and outbound. Quite often I'll email a reporter, maybe IM them, then wait for a response. Sometimes, if the story is right, I'll follow up by phone. Nearly all of the time the reporter will say one of two things:

  • Oh, I saw that email but didn't have a chance to respond, what was that again? or
  • Can you email me? You did? Let me find it... hold on.... [searching inbox]... oh, yeah, that does sound interesting...

The reason is simple: a phone call lets them get more information in less time. Instead of being stuck with just the information I sent, they can interrupt me, ask questions and get more data. They can also tell me why they're not interested, giving me more information to help improve the story.

Anyone who has ever tried to make a joke via email can tell you that writing has its limits. Sarcasm certainly doesn't translate well and jokes often fall flat. So if you're a journalist doing an interview, don't you want to hear a pregnant pause? Doesn't a tone tell you a bit more information than the basic facts?

If you need a current example of this just listen to the amazing piece on This American Life called When Patents Attack! Simple questions trip up key subjects just by being asked out loud. Via email those questions would have been fretted over and answered carefully. They would have conveyed some information, but not all of it.

Also, if, as a journalist, you carefully screen everyone who gets through to you, aren't you simply limiting your sources of information? This has some advantages, but as a journalist doesn't this keep you from gaining new sources and good stories?

So I'm curious from journalists and non-journalists: if you could eliminate phone from your life, would you? Have you already done that through tools like Google Voice? Are their other inbound channels that you'd eliminate if you could?

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