Are email interviews ruining storytelling?

What we lose when we resort to emails instead of conversations.

 

Email
Image by robodread/Shutterstock

In 2005, I developed a bad habit. I was finishing up my communications degree after a six-year hiatus in the real world – I had left school for a radio career and, in the meantime, began freelancing. Even though I was in my mid-20s and had already earned a few bylines by the time I returned to the classroom, I longed to be part of the student newspaper. While there, I fell into a routine of emailing professors and peers questions.

But then I took an oral history class – and, soon after contributed a story to the local paper where I interviewed a man in his 80s about a would-be Pennsylvania river port that instead, tragically, became a ghost town soon after it hit the map. This story about Stoddartsville was one of the best pieces I’d written to date – I’d captured the fluctuating tone and volume of John Butler’s voice, the twinkle in his eyes, the way he interacted with his dog, Jenny, the interior of his stone house that could pass for a museum. It suddenly hit me: I’d been sacrificing quality for the sake of convenience. Interview transcripts – pauses and all – are a gold mine for content. They’re beautiful, surprising. Our surroundings sing. Our nonverbals scream.

Static text in an email reply? Not so much.

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Soon after my epiphany, I shared my (re)discovery of the power of talking to people in an article called “Why I Deleted Email Interviews” at a now-defunct writing website. More than a decade later, I still share the sentiment that we’re doing ourselves and our readers a disservice by typing up a list of questions and – boop! – sending them off into the ether. But my concern is growing; this shortcut is becoming more ubiquitous. (But is it even a shortcut, what with unpredictable response times and inbox overload?)

In full disclosure, I’ve done email interviews. (I think it’s a stretch to call them interviews; they’re more like questionnaires.) And I’m betting many of the most talented reporters have given in to their so-called ease. But at what expense? I’ve been pondering nonstop how email – or, now, direct message or text – interviews impact our storytelling. How they affect the tone and structure of our articles. How they might even be making us lazy. How email exchanges are making what could be great stories just good or OK. I decided to finally speak up about this elephant in the writing room.

In 2017, I presented a session called “Interview Like a Journalist, Write Like a Marketer” at two higher education-related web conferences. The inspiration for this was simple: I’d seen too many colleagues of all ages and levels – and student employees at various institutions – using email as a crutch. My presentation – geared toward marketing directors, alumni magazine editors, and other content creators – focused on emotional storytelling for recruiting, retention, engagement, and fundraising. My biggest point was if we’re looking to connect people to our campuses and warm people’s hearts, why are we using the coldest method possible to capture stories? I advised attendees to make stories about humans sound more human. I urged them to get out their shovels.

Whether for a company or a publication, for journalism or content marketing – whether a personality profile, news story, or piece of marketing collateral – I firmly believe we can create stronger, more compelling stories when we talk, live, with our interview subjects.

(Note: Email interviews are necessary in some cases; for example, they serve as an appropriate and helpful alternative if a writer or subject has an accessibility need. This article isn’t intended to focus on those instances, but rather in cases where there’s a choice.)