Are email interviews ruining storytelling?

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

Capturing authentic voice and rich detail

Email interviews can be so sterile. Even their default design is stark: blank white background, black text. That’s why Lindsey Wotanis, associate professor of communications arts and advisor to the student newspaper at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, stresses that email interviews are a no-no to her journalists of tomorrow.

“You lose all spontaneity. You lose the ability to follow up in real time. You miss body language,” she said. While a phone interview is a good happy medium, she strongly encourages student reporters to meet people in person. “If you rely on email, you’re not going to get that richness – pauses, tears in their eyes. The nonverbal is just as important.”

In fact, Wotanis sometimes requires students to turn in transcripts with assignments; it’s obvious when a student doesn’t heed her advice.

“You can absolutely tell,” she says with a chuckle. “When a quote is so perfectly structured…we don’t talk like we write. We speak in fragments and phrases.” She adds that it may be necessary to remove “ahs” and “ums” from a news story, but “for a [feature], fillers and fragments – our crazy language – can create better characters.”

That’s why my Stoddartsville story was so alive.

Amma Marfo, a Boston-based speaker, writer, and consultant, often interviews comedians and women in higher education. She’s a strong advocate for expressive writing, and this richness starts with the interview. Marfo says personality-driven pieces – where you really want the reader to connect with a subject – need nuance. And nuance is hard in email.

“You have to guess tone, guess how [subjects] feel. It’s not just what they say, but how they’re saying it,” she said. “Written answers give you the what; they don’t give you the how and why.”

Marfo also says with email answers, pieces profiling more than one person can appear disjointed – think co-founders or an ensemble cast. Once, she had to interview two colleagues, women who had a similar personality and manner of speaking. Due to constraints, she had to use email – and the pair’s penchant for being on the same wavelength was absent.

“They came off tonally different [in writing],” Marfo said, adding she’d have “gotten a completely different product” if she’d been able to use an interactive medium.

“I don’t know that we always pay attention to those kinds of things,” she said of the varying ways an individual or group of friends come across based on if they wrote or spoke their answers.