No matter what writing project I work on—an article for magazine, a blog post for a university website, or even researching to write a book—some sources just prefer to answer interview questions via email. While interviews in person or via the phone are usually preferable, you can still glean some great information from an interviewee’s email.
Use these tips to get the information you need from sources when interviewing via email:
1. Keep it short and simple. The cardinal rule of journalistic writing is important when interviewing via email. Keep the questions you email direct and concise so your source can easily understand what is being asked and doesn’t get confused.
2. Add simple prompts. To make sure you get some specifics, you can add a few prompts in parentheses after the questions to direct the source to provide the relevant details you need. So a question may look like this:
Tell me about your background (such as education history, past jobs, etc.)
Tell me about your childhood (your parents’ occupations, siblings, lifestyle)
3. Ask the same question in different ways. Sometimes the way you ask a question can make a huge impact on an interviewee’s response. A source may write a one-sentence (or one-word) response to one question, and write three paragraphs in response to another. If there’s key information you need from a source and you’re concerned he may be hesitant to share it, altering the way you frame a question when you ask it could yield better results.
4. Limit the number of questions. Focus your questions on the key information you need. Do research before you talk to the person (search for the source on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) so you know the basics of his background. That way you can simply confirm the factual info you find quickly, and focus more of your questions on the meat of the interview topic. Also, make sure you don’t have such a long list of questions that it intimidates the source.
5. Always end with an open-ended question. Some of the best information I’ve gotten from email interviews comes when I ask this question: Is there anything else about X topic or your experience that you’d like to share? This is a great catchall question, so if you didn’t ask something specifically, but the person has more she wants to share, she has an opportunity to share it.
6. Follow up. Once you receive the interviewee’s responses, reply via email to thank her and let her know if you have any additional follow-up questions, you’ll be in touch. This is important because sometime a source may provide a short or incomplete response to an important question. You can send an email to follow up and ask for more specific details. For example, if he mentions an event he participated in, you could follow up and ask him what his role was in the event, where the event was held, the event’s official title, and when the event took place.
7. Give the interviewee a deadline. This may be the most important thing you can do. Everyone is busy, and your source is, too. If you give a source a deadline to reply, it gets your email on her schedule so she can plan her time accordingly. And if you don’t hear back from the source by the deadline, it gives you a good opportunity to follow up without sounding too pushy.
Remember, sometimes email interviews can be a really great thing—like when you’re working on deadline and the source has no appointment times in his schedule, but can write responses while waiting at the airport. Other times, it can create challenges—like when working on a profile of a person that requires a lot of background detail and personal stories to showcase the person or topic.
Use your best judgment on which story types or interviewees would provide good information via email versus stories or interviewees that may be best to speak directly to via phone or in person.
About Dana’s Creative Services
Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. She frequently writes and edits copy on higher education and genealogy/family history topics. She is the author of the Unofficial Guide to FamilySearch.org. Twitter: @DanasCreative