Are email interviews ruining storytelling?

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

Flexibility and freedom…and what isn’t said

Nicole Haase, a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who specializes in collegiate athletics, prefers to show up to interviews without actual questions. This doesn’t mean she’s unprepared, though.

“I have one to two thoughts written down – topics I’d like to discuss – and the rest comes from what they’re telling me,” she said. An email would limit her preferred tactic of letting the story develop naturally.

Marfo says live interviews allow a story to take a new path or, at the least, spawn an interesting follow-up question based on an answer, a change in voice, or body language.

“[I can] pick up on a comment or a way someone is speaking,” Marfo said. “Those cues…those follow-ups are a lot harder to orchestrate over email.”

As I listened to Marfo, I realized her comment seemed especially applicable to one of her beats: comedy. Since we were talking by phone, I was immediately able to interject: “Oh. Yes! And you said earlier you covered comedy…I bet these cues make so much more of a difference when you’re talking to people…who are known for being funny.” Marfo lit up, and she instantly segued into about her experience interviewing actor, writer, and comedian J.B. Smoove, perhaps best known for his role as Leon on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“There’s absolutely no way that would have worked in an email,” she said, explaining that he writes very differently than he speaks. “It would have fundamentally been a different experience if I had said, ‘Hey. Here, answer these questions and send them back to me.’”

Dave Pidgeon, a writer and podcaster from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says beat reporters have an opportunity to build relationships with people they encounter again and again – and can also to get to know people’s habits or tell if they’re having an “off day” through observation. For example, at a council meeting, he could see if one official rolled their eyes or sighed when someone else spoke. Or maybe he noticed someone get tripped up by a question from a resident or another reporter.

“I can approach them later and say, ‘Hey, I noticed…’” he said.

Along with this, Wotanis says asking questions one on one allows the writer to maintain control – and comfort. For example, if there’s a particularly emotional question, a writer can read body language and hold off on asking it until they’re sure the source is ready.

“But with an email, you can’t withhold a question for the right moment,” she advises. “[The subject] can look at the list of questions…and avoid the whole process.”

Like Pidgeon, a seasoned reporter can pick up on nonverbal cues to uncover a story – or find another angle of an ongoing one. As Wotanis suggests, a solid interviewer can pace things in such a way to gain trust; they can sense when a topic is delicate, pull back, and revisit later. Like Marfo and Haase, a strong storyteller can build an angle organically, in real-time. This flexibility just isn’t possible – or at least not as easy – without personal interaction.