Conducting an interview used to mean you had to reach a source on the phone or track them down in person, break out your tape recorder and then double back after the fact to transcribe the interview before piecing it together into an article. Thanks to email, we now have a fast and simple platform for conducting interviews that span across time zones and international borders.
Though email interviews are certainly convenient, they’re not without their own set of disadvantages. Here, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of email interviews and share some tips for pulling engaging soundbites from this often-impersonal interview medium.
How Do Email Interviews Work?
An email interview is pretty straightforward. You, the journalist, emails the source a list of questions and the source sends back their answers. Ideally, you’ll have had a conversation beforehand about the nature of the story and what you’re hoping they can contribute as a source. You’ll also agree on a deadline for them to submit their answers.
The biggest upside to email interviews is that they’re convenient. There’s no back and forth to find a time that works for both of you, which is great when dealing with busy sources. Plus, you also save the time that would be spent on the interview itself, which could anywhere from 15 or 20 minutes to an hour or more.
Email interviews allow you to capture all of your source’s answers in writing. This is nice because there’s no risk of any dispute down the road about what was said–it’s all right there on paper.
Email interviews ensure that you get to ask the precise questions you want to ask and that the source has plenty of time to think through their answers. Sometimes, this can result in more thorough, well-thought-out answers than those given on the spur of the moment in real time.
Finally, a nice perk of email interviews is that you don’t have to race to take notes as a source rattles off answers or spend time going back and transcribing a recorded interview. The quotes you need are already neatly typed up and ready for you to copy and paste.
The main downside of email interviews is that you lose the spontaneity of a realtime interview–those in-the-moment responses and off-the-cuff comments that can reveal so much about a story. With email, it’s easy for sources to overthink their answers, which can result in them sounding unnatural.
You also miss out on the chit chat that typically happens at the start and end of a phone or in-person interview, which is often where the best tidbits and pieces of color come from (and also a great place to get ideas for future story angles).
When sources are drafting email responses, you risk getting “PR approved” answers that have gone through a publicist or boss first, or worse, been directly written by them. While these answers are sure to be politically correct, they’re often sanitized and can lack the kind of substance you’re looking for to get to the heart of a story.
On that same note, with email interviews you lose the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, which are critical when you’re trying to hold a source accountable and get real answers.
When to Use Email Interviews For a Piece of Journalism
Sometimes, you’ll need to use email for an interview out of necessity. Perhaps the source’s schedule does not allow for a phone interview or you’re having trouble finding a time slot that works for both of you. Other times, email is the most convenient method for interviewing people on the other side of the world or in situations where there’s a language barrier.
Email interviews are particularly useful when you’re on a tight deadline and need to contact multiple sources; it’s much easier to cast a wide net through email than if you were trying to reach everyone by phone. Email is also an efficient way to get quick answers from a handful of similar sources, like if you’re trying to get a feel for an industry trend (“have you noticed a difference in the number of homes on the market lately?”) or get feedback on a piece of breaking news (“what do you think of the president’s comments on X?”).
5 Tips for Conducting a Successful Email Interview
1. Give context
Since email doesn’t allow for an informal chat before the interview begins, you want to be sure to give them some context before listing off your questions. Share relevant background, tell them the angle you’re planning on taking and offer any expectations about what you’re hoping they can add to the piece with their responses.
2. Set a deadline
One challenge with email interviews that we haven’t touched on yet is getting your answers back in a timely manner. If you don’t set a deadline, it’s all too easy for a source to “mark unread” with the best intentions to come back to your email later, but never get around to it.
To avoid this, set a hard deadline for when you need their responses. Don’t cut it too close to when your piece is due. Ideally, give yourself a cushion of at least a day or two so you can circle back with follow up questions or get more clarity if needed.
3. Ask open ended questions
This is a best practice for any type of interview, not just those done by email. You’ll get much more insightful responses if you avoid yes-or-no questions and instead leave your queries open ended, like “tell me a bit about X” or “what do you think of X?”
Conversely, try not to be too direct in your questions. If you make specific suggestions within a question — like “share a little bit about your background: your degrees, work history, etc.” — the source will tend to talk only about their degrees and work history. That’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but not ideal if you were hoping to get a feel for their personality. So don’t box them in.
4. Prompt them to speak in layman’s terms
To weed out jargon-filled answers, try asking a question like “how would you explain this topic to your grandmother?” or “what does this mean for the average American?” The goal is to cut through technical speak and get them to talk in relatable language about the subject.
5. Ask for additional information
It’s always a great idea to give the source an opportunity to feed you more information than what you asked for. We like to close with the question, “is there anything I haven’t asked about, but should?” You can also ask for their recommendations on other experts you should speak with for this or follow up pieces
Interview Articles Look Great on Your Portfolio
Solid interviews are for more than just fact-finding. They fill your work with relatable characters and help you build a story that readers can connect with. Be sure to include lots of pieces with rich interviews in your writing portfolio.
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Musings and updates from the content management team at Clippings.me.