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How to get the most out of email interviews

How to get the most out of email interviews

It’s not always best practice to conduct an email interview as a freelance writer. But sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s what you have to do. Over the years, I’ve gleaned some great email questions that ensure you get fantastic quotes from case studies.

How freelance writers can get the most out of email interviews

email interview journalist

Email interviews in journalism can be super useful. But, like anything, there are pros and cons to using this method of interviewing case studies or experts.  

The benefits of email interviews in journalism:

-       You have your case study's words in writing

-       It’s so time efficient, especially if you're a full time freelancer (no back and forwards working out schedules for a phone call)

-       No transcribing

-       No mad scramble for batteries for your dictaphone just minutes before your interview (but maybe this is just me?)

-       Plenty of time to craft your questions and ask exactly what you want 

-      Great for interviewing experts like academics or researchers where you need precise information

The drawbacks of freelance writers using email interviews:

-       You lose some of the magic and spontaneity (ok, a lot)

-       You don’t get to pursue any other line of questioning except what you’ve put down

-       You don’t get to create any personal connection (and often you lose opportunities for case study spoking)

-        The potential for canned, lifeless responses is high

The best time to use email interviews for case studies or experts

I would never interview someone over email if I was writing a profile of them or where I needed lively, colourful quotes.

Though that said, I once wrote a feature on Instagram influencers and one was only available for an email interview. And you know what? It was ok, but it wasn't great. Her personality didn't shine through and her answers seemed to be very mindful of protecting her 'brand'. Maybe that would be the same if I had spoken to her, but for the same article I spoke to two other influencers over the phone and they were nowhere near as filtered.

I find email interviews most useful when I need to gather clear, crisp answers from people that don’t necessarily have to be vibrant or jumping off the page. This means I tend to save email interviews for academics or experts where the facts are more important than florid comments. Interviews where you need to explore recent research or where you're asking an expert for 'how to' advice are great to conduct via email.

Sometimes I use a two-step approach where I’ll ask questions via email first and then follow up with a phone call. I find that it’s a good way to get all the facts out of the way and get straight to the good stuff in the phone call.

I’ll also often give people the option to answer questions via email or by phone. Some people much prefer having the time to deliberate and answer via email, and some are happy just to chat freely over the phone.

Alternatives to phone interviews are much more common that you might think - one French magazine conducts interviews via text message and even Vogue has got in on the act of text interviews. 

Write to Done editor Mary Jaksch has an usual process of interviewing bloggers where she emails one question and then waits for the reply before asking the next. That to me would be a slow form of torture, so you have to work out what suits you best. 

When email interviews don't work

Because you only have your words on a page, it's crucial to know how to structure a good email interview. The best that can happen is that someone writes and replies as they talk and you get natural, free flowing responses to your questions.

The worst is you get regurgitated jargon that is inaccessible, meaningless and ultimately unusable.

So what kinds of questions can you ask to make sure you get fantastic quotes each and every time? 

The examples below are questions that I would typically ask researchers, academics or experts in a particular field.

It probably goes without saying, but these are not the questions I asked my Instagram influencer ;) 

These questions are drawn from two main sources  – I discovered these resources a few years ago and come back to them time and again to help me craft my questions via email.

An example of email interview questions to ask academics or researchers

But ... before you ask the first question

Even though you would have told the case study who you’re writing the article for and what it’s about, it’s always worth recapping. So start with a brief description of the article you’re writing.

“As I mentioned, I’m writing this article about X for X. I’m speaking with X experts and X case studies with lived experience about X.”

Set the scene (background questions)

-       Can you tell me about the project/research and how you became involved in it? (This may also go something like: Can you tell me about yourself and your experience in this field – although if you ask this expect a bio, rather than anything you can quote)

-       What prompted you to get involved in this research/project? (What prompted you to pursue X?)

And so? (here you want to get to why this is important/relevant/new)

-       What did you find?

-       How might I explain your findings in a way that 10 year old could understand? (This is so helpful for cutting through scientific jargon)

-       Why are your findings important for everyday people?

-       What might the broader implications of your findings be?

-       What kind of response have you got? (Another good one to ask here is: What do others in your field think/say about this? Or: Is there anyone else who thinks your results show something different?)

-       Was there a turning point where you realised you had made an important finding?

-       What do you personally find exciting, important or surprising about the results?

-       Are there any myths or misconceptions in this area that you’d like to clear up?

-       Is there anything else you’d like to add about X? (Always finish with this question)

Some tips:

Be warned that if you put prompts in brackets, people are likely just to answer those.

For example you might ask: “Tell me about yourself (e.g. your age, height and hobbies).” While you’ve suggested those three things as items the case study might like to tell you about, you’re likely to only get back answers to those questions.

Give them a deadline - tell them specifically when you need their answers back by. Learn from my experience and don't tell them when your submission date is and hope they'll do the maths and email you their responses a few days prior. They won't. They'll think you are a super human who can receive their responses on the day of submission and turn them into a sparkling article by 5pm. 

Do you conduct interviews over email? Do you have any other go-to questions that you commonly use?

 

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