Friday, February 1, 2008

Interviewing: Phone vs. Email

Lately I've been giving a lot of interviews for some magazine-type articles I've been working on. I give interviews both via email and over the phone. Both methods have their pros and cons.

Email interviewing: quick and easy, but not always painless.

The best thing about sending an email questionnaire is that it allows the interviewee to think about her answers, rather than having to think of a response off the top of her head in a phone interview. Some people can feel put on the spot when speaking in person, and might be more articulate in writing. In addition, you don't have to type hurriedly while listening to your interviewee talk--and then try to decipher your typing later. Some people swear by recording their interviewees, but I'm not sure how that works when you're using a cell phone.

There are a few problems with this method, however. Some people don't interview well in writing--they prefer to speak to someone in person. If the responses you get are a bit thin, you can't really draw the interviewee out during the interview--what you get is what you get. In addition, you can't adjust your questions as needed--so crucial questions might go unanswered.

Perhaps the worst problem with email interviewing, however, is that you have to trust the other person to get back to you with the responses within your period of time. The first time I did email interviews, this worked beautifully; all of my interviewees got back to me well within my due date. The second time, I had to interview five people--and every single one didn't send me responses. I wound up scrambling for sources at the last minute even though I had given myself plenty of time, and I had to do most of those last-minute interviews by phone anyway.

I've found that those who respond best to email interviews tend to have some incentive to be in your article: they want the publicity you can bring them. If you're interviewing ordinary people with no incentive to be in the article other than to see their name in print, they may forget or decide it's not worth the effort to respond.

Phone interviewing: the traditional method.

Phone interviews can go really well if you strike up chemistry with your interviewee; or it can be like pulling teeth to get your subject to talk. It's a lot like casual conversation in real life; some people you "click" with, and some you don't.

The best thing about phone interviews is that there's no waiting: you set a date and time with your interviewee, and you get it done. Unless, of course, the interviewee has to reschedule, or for some reason you can't reach him when you call at the appointed time and you have to play phone tag for a while. Sometimes these things happen no matter what method you use.

In an in-person interview, you can adjust your questions as you go, draw out less-talkative people, and generally work to get better responses if you're not getting what you need initially. The drawback is that the subject might not give the best answers possible off the top of his head, plus you'll have to listen and type at the same time unless you have some way of recording the interview.

Both methods have advantages and drawbacks. Perhaps the most effective method, however, is a blend between the two. Send your subject a list of your questions beforehand, so he can look them over and think about his answers. Then schedule a time to call and do a phone interview. This way, you can get the best from both methods.


badmansports said...

I find the am email interview to be advantageous when I'm interviewing multiple sources and I'll be asking most of them the same questions.

Otherwise, I prefer to interview via telephone. I always prepare my questions ahead of time, but almost always, the interviewee's answers lead to new questions. When email is used, that leads to multiple rounds of messages that can take a long time.

Sometimes you don't have a choice. For example, I just interviewed Mark Cuban and he prefers to do all of his interviews by email only.


stephanerd said...

Great post Jennifer. I'm often tempted to conduct interviews by e-mail, just because of how much easier it is (plus, I'm shy and communicate better in writing), but it's always best, I think -- for the sake of the interview -- to talk to your interview subject in real time. Mainly for the reaons you mentioned about being able to interject additional questions and follow an aside in a new and possibly interesting direction.

Of course, the best case scenario is to conduct interviews in person, but I've recently purchased some fun new toys for interviewing on the phone.

First of all, I bought a digital voice recorder that allows me to upload interviews onto my computer if I so choose (I purchased an RCA model, but a lot of the Olympus ones are nice as well). And then I bought the Olympus TP7 Telephone Pickup, suitable for both landlines and mobile phones. All you do is plug one end into the microphone outlet of your recorder and stick the other end (a small mic) into your ear, and you're golden! The telephone pickup was recommended to me by someone on the MB msg boards.

Anali said...

This post is perfect timing for me. I wonder how you feel about doing both? I wanted to email someone some initial questions by email, but then talk to them a bit on the phone also to get more of a feel for their personality. What do you think or is that just too much?

Jennifer said...

@Badman: That's true, interviewing by phone definitely gives you more flexibility.

@Stephanerd: I know what you mean about being shy. I'm usually not very shy, but when you get used to working by yourself and talking to clients and everyone else primarily via email, your phone skills can get rusty. That's a fantastic tip on the voice recorder, by the way-- I'll look into that!

@Anali: I've never really done it for an article, but I've been thinking about doing it--at least for important, in-depth interviews or instances where you have one source for the whole article and you want to make sure you get the absolute most you can from the interview. In freelancing, I'll sometimes do this with clients to get a more detailed sense of what they're looking for in a project--and yes, it can help.

Lori said...

Email interviews are the WORST sometimes. I had one guy I sent several detailed questions to, and he sent back several one-sentence responses, most of which didn't make any sense to someone not knowing his business.

Sometimes it's great when you need a quick quote or your interview subject is constantly traveling. I had one interviewee who wrote very thoughtful, deep responses, so it can happen. But it's too much of a crap shoot to think it's the go-to method.

Minion said...

I used to have all kinds of problems like this when I did marketing reviews at my old job. What helped make sure that people responded to my reviewer questionnare was to email them the week before I was expecting a response to kindly remind them that I would be awaiting their replies and was on a deadline. This usually guilted people into either responding to inform me that they didn't have the time to complete the review(annoying-- but much better to know a week in advance) or to let me know that I could count on their interview the following week. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it seemed to work some of the time.

Jennifer said...

@Lori: That's really true, and sometimes it can leave you in trouble--whether you're interviewing for an article or for a client project. I've had some really wonderful email interviews, but unless you have a lot of time to go back and forth with the person or schedule a phone interview later, it's generally not dependable.

@Min: That's the worst, isn't it? Lack of response is definitely my biggest pet peeve with email interviewing, and I've never heard it mentioned in comparison articles before. But it does happen, and it can really screw you over.