When I first started writing articles that required expert sources, I was simply instructed to “interview” the relevant person. I was given their email and no further instructions. Other times, I’m given an assignment where I have to locate and solicit sources myself.
There are two main ways that interviews are conducted these days: by phone and by email. Each one has its merits, and both can be used to create excellent content.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned when it’s appropriate to use email and when a phone call is required. Here, I’ll share what I’ve learned about phone and email interviews, and some tips for success.
Phone (or in-person) interviews are the gold standard in journalism. They allow for a more natural speaking style, and it can be easier to feel a connection with the interviewee. Plus, they allow for real-time follow up questions, which can really help you to get what you’re looking for from the source. When in doubt, I would suggest you try for a phone interview.
When to use a phone interview
When I first started interviewing, I didn’t want to have to call. Secretly, I wished everything could be done by email. Compared to email, phone calls are more taxing, they’re more stressful, and there’s more work involved. But after gaining more experience, I understand why they’re important.
When the article is focused on narrative, a phone interview is essential. You end up with much more content overall (a half-hour phone call transcript can be 5,000 words), whereas with email interviews, you generally end up with a few hundred words to work with.
When the article is focused on something else, a phone interview can mean you end up with thousands of words to sift through to find a small quote. As long as you’re not strapped for time, though, this is still a good outcome because it means you have a lot to work with.
Generally, I try for a phone interview whenever I need more than a simple quote, and whenever the article is focused on narrative. I find this results in better content overall.
Tips for phone interviews
When conducting a phone interview, be sure to test your recording setup before the call. I like to make the call on speakerphone on my cell phone, and record it using two methods: 1) a dedicated recorder device and 2) using my MacBook’s voice memos app. This means that if one of my recording methods fails, I have a backup. This is essential when dealing with busy people who are doing your client a favour.
I like to offer to send the questions in advance of the interview. This is not standard practice, but as someone who is not a fan of public speaking, I understand that it can help ease people’s nerves. Almost everyone says they would like to see the questions, and I find the interview goes more smoothly when they’re prepared.
When preparing for a phone interview, I plan meticulously, to the point of almost having a script. My nature is to prepare, and I like to make sure everything gets said right.
I like to begin by giving the interviewee a bit of a spiel about the article, and some background information. I also tell them what I’m hoping to gain from the interview so they understand how to frame their responses. All of this helps the source get more comfortable before we start the interview.
Then, I go through my list of questions, altering them and asking follow-ups as required. I like to ensure the first question is something simple, like their biographical information or work background.
I generally end interviews by asking the source if there’s anything else they’d like to say, or anything we didn’t get to. Then I let them know what to expect in terms of the article and end the call.
After the interview, I use Otter.ai to transcribe my phone interviews. It’s an AI-powered transcription service that does a good enough job for my purposes. You can also consider services like Rev, where real people are paid to transcribe the conversation.
Email interviews, or even DM interviews, are becoming increasingly more common in the fast-paced content world. In certain scenarios, they work well, and sometimes even better than a phone interview. They allow you to contact people who would otherwise not be easy to contact. They open the door to conversations with people who simply don’t have time for a phone call.
Email interviews are best for situations where you’re looking for less content, or a quote that fills a very specific role. They can also be an efficient way to manage your time if you are not being compensated sufficiently to justify a phone interview, and they’re a last-resort option if the person you need isn’t available otherwise.
When to use an email interview
I frequently use email interviews for SEO and blog posts that are not focused on narrative. Often, I only need a very small quote to add some credibility or answer a simple question, and the article is not focused on the interviewee’s input.
Email interviews are easy for the interviewee. When propositioning a potential source for an SEO or blog post, I tend to ask for a phone interview, but also send the questions and let them know they can respond by email if preferred. Frequently, they get back to me with the answers jotted in the body of the email.
This works particularly well with busy doctors who don’t have time to schedule a phone call, especially if they aren’t involved with your client’s organization and are simply doing you a favour. They’re also easier for the writer, because you don’t have to record or transcribe the call.
Tips for email interviews
Keep the email brief, and be clear about what you want and when. Consider bolding important sentences e.g. “Let me know either way so I can find someone else if you are not available”, especially if the interviewee is a doctor or another busy person.
I always include the questions in the first email, so they can simply respond with the answers if they want to.
If you’re DMing a source on twitter, be sure to also tweet at them so they see the DM. Some people don’t get notifications for DMs from those they don’t follow.
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