Technology has played a significant role in my life.
Eight and a half years ago, I arrived in London with nothing but a laptop, a student visa and one bag of clothing. It was the second big move in life. The first was from my small hometown in upstate New York to Los Angeles in my early 20s to find work in the film and television industries.
It was the late 90s, and although we had the internet, there were no video conferencing apps available yet, nor tablets or smartphones. For the next five years, I had to keep in touch with loved ones via good old-fashioned landline communication. Over time, the technology evolved, allowing me to see my mother and my “sister” Sammy, the cat I left behind when I moved away. The first time she joined us on a Skype call, she head-butted the camera and purred her heart out. For years Mum and I spent every major holiday greeting each other through a screen, settling in with a nice cup of tea. When Sammy passed away at age 17, we cried together, 3,000 miles apart.
I’m a writer in London now, having joined the StoryTerrace writer pool in 2017. Until recently, a big part of the job involved meeting with clients in person, getting to know them and recording their stories to create the perfect book for their loved ones. That all changed with the outbreak of the coronavirus. Many people are self-isolating, including those considered high-risk like myself. Once again, technology has bridged the distance.
Getting ready for one of my client interviews with StoryTerrace from home
As an asthmatic, it gives me peace of mind to know that I can avoid public transportation and hopefully stay healthy while still maintaining a warm working relationship with my clients from the comforts of my flat in Southwest London.
As with anything, preparation is the key to success. There are a few things I do to ensure a smooth meeting.
A day or two before the meeting, I make sure the client is familiar and comfortable with whichever software we will be using. There are plenty of options available, depending on the customer's level of technical knowledge.
If they need to download and install something and don’t consider themselves tech savvy, I ring them and walk them through it over the phone. Most of the apps are easy to learn.
Aside from the technical concerns, I also reassure my interviewee that an online meeting will be just like being there with them.
My Top Tips for Making the Most of Remote Interviews
On the day of your call:
1. Set up a peaceful environment. Close all doors and windows, and turn noisy devices like fans off. This will eliminate as much background noise as possible. Ideally, set up your seating area in a well-lit location.
2. Make yourself presentable, just as if it were an in-person meeting. For audio-only calls, I wear my standard work-from-home uniform: a Ramones t-shirt and ripped jeans.
3. Prepare any notes or questions you have in a separate window on the computer. If the screen isn’t big enough to navigate between the meeting and a document easily, use hard copies. Have a notebook and pen ready.
4. Make a cup of tea and relax. Your writer will guide you, so don't feel that you have to remember everything about your life instantaneously.
5. Expect the unexpected! Remember the video of the little girl bursting into her father’s video call on BBC News last year? No matter how many times you see it, it never gets old. If a dog or child interrupts, it’s another way for a writer and client to get to know one another. Once, I conducted an entire in-person interview with a cat on my lap, and another time a Scottish terrier named “Wee Girl” beckoned me to a game of fetch. An occasional intrusion makes the process more fun for everyone.
The interrupted video call interview on live TV news that went viral
In the space of a week, I’ve done two video calls with clients. The first was with Sukhdev in Hounslow, the second with Francois in Chiswick.
The experience wasn’t much different from meeting someone in person. With Sukhdev, the main difference involved descriptions of individuals and locations from his past. In person, this would elicit a presentation of a family photo album or framed pictures from the mantelpiece. Since this wasn’t feasible, we engaged in a comprehensive conversation about the height, idiosyncrasies and clothing of the most important people in his story.
Waving goodbye to my client Sukhdev after an enjoyable and fulfilling video call!
For locations, I Googled images of each client’s home village in India and France and discovered plenty of details with which to set the scenes in their respective books.
In terms of human interaction, the dynamics were the same online as in person. We made eye contact with each other and shared our love of tea. We laughed together over funny anecdotes and quickly developed an easy rapport that grew with each subsequent meeting.
On a call with one of my clients Francois - ready to listen to his stories, cups of tea at the ready!
Just as I have with my family over the years, technology has enabled me to have warm, meaningful exchanges with the people who have entrusted me to tell their stories. Technology is a bridge that connects us during the current social isolation. We are very lucky when compared to the people who lived through the 1918 influenza epidemic: They had no internet to help them get through it.
Fortunately, we are ready, willing and able to get through this together, with an assist from the technology at our fingertips and the spirit of friendship in our hearts.
To find out more about Jenn, check out her writer bio here.
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