Most bloggers interview by email. Most journalists interview face-to-face or over the phone.

Why the split?

Polar Bear by Tavis Ford

Polar bears should always be interviewed in person.

I don’t blame the bloggers. I once interviewed five Kashmiri men for an article in a newspaper. Kashmiri’s like to talk, and they talk fast. I tried to keep notes, but after each interview, my hand was so cramped it felt like Dauood—with his large, round belly—had sat on it for an hour.

The Debate: Face-to-Face versus Email Interviews

How do you interview people for your blog, for your novel, for your newspaper article? How should you interview? Should you do it in person? Over the phone? By email?

I talked to four professional journalists and one blogger about how they interview. If you’ve been following this series on interviewing, we’ve added a new member to the “panel,” former radio journalist Tor Constantino (check out Tor’s credentials along with the rest of the panel’s).

Here’s what they said:

1. Try to interview in person. If you can’t, do it over the phone. If you can’t do it over the phone, interview by email.

This is the general rule, as veteran journalist Porter Anderson says, “Face-to-face is best. A phoner is the next choice. If neither of those is possible, you use e-mail.”

2. All liars should be interviewed in person.

“Hands down, I prefer to interview people in-person,” says Tor Constantino. “At least 50% of communication is non-verbal—you need those unspoken cues to know whether or not you’re being lied to.”

Noted: Any time you’re interviewing a liar, meet them in person. Or maybe avoid interviewing liars in general.

3. Email interviewing saves time.

“I prefer to interview via email, so that I don’t have to transcribe it later,” says blogger Jeff Goins. “I literally have hours of unedited audio on my computer that has never been published in any form. Really sad. The easiest way to interview people is email.” That is sad, Jeff. The world needs those interviews.

Sports reporter Morgan Lee says, “Email is your last option—though it can be time-saving and should not be totally disregarded.”

4. For the most rushed interviewees, you can always chase people down the street.

“It’s easier to interview a rushed individual in person,” Tor says. “You just keep walking with them while your camera or tape recorder is still rolling. I’ve gotten on elevators with newsmakers and into cabs with them to get the interview.”

First you’re interviewing liars, then you’re stalking people in elevators? Tor, when you said you were a journalist, did you really mean secret agent?

5. Interview in person if you want to watch people cry.

Local reporter Marissa Villa says, “When you interview in person you get a better sense of people. You get details that you can’t get over the phone. You can see their eyes well up with tears, see where they live, see them lovingly look at their dead loved one’s picture.”

Wow, that’s beautiful. However, usually when I look at my dead loved ones’ pictures it’s with anger and feelings of betrayal, so maybe I shouldn’t let Marissa interview me in person.

6. Email when you’re just looking for the facts.

Porter has this great distinction between Discovery interviews, which are longer in form and more contextual, and Q&A interviews, which are fact-focused.

“ Q&A interview is call-and-response, not a conversation,” Porter says. “And since Q&As can feel wooden, a bit lifeless, it works better in written form—you send questions, they send answers.”

If you just need the facts, go for email.

7. Great Blogger Strategy: Interview over email, then follow up over the phone.

Jeff has this great advice for bloggers who are both rushed and want better interviews:

The easiest way to interview people, as I said before, is email. However, it’s also the least memorable for the interviewee and pretty impersonal. My preference is to send some questions ahead of time, then do a follow-up phone call or in-person meeting to get some live audio and to build the relationship.

Better interview. Better networking.

8. Ask your audience what they prefer.

In the end, it’s really a question of whether your audience wants to get to know the subject through the Discovery interview, which is face-to-face or over the phone, or whether they just want the facts in Q&A format, which you do over email. As Porter says:

If your numbers are better when you do “discovery” interviews with more context about the interviewees, then you know this is what your readership prefers. On the other hand, if you get more traction when you do a Q&A, then you your readers may be in the leaner, cut-to-the-chase camp.

Back to How to Conduct an Interview Like A Journalist.

PRACTICE

Let’s practice interviewing people in person today. If you’re at the office or a coffee shop, sit down next to someone and say, “Hey, I know this is really random, but I just got challenged to interview someone for the Write Practice. Could you help me out? I just need to ask you like three questions.”

They’ll say yes. If they say no, stick your tongue out at them and call them a jerk.

If you’re alone, you’ll have to interview your imaginary friend, Tommy. He’ll let you ask him questions. He’s very sweet.

Ask your real or imaginary friend about their job. What do they do? Do they like it? What do they hate about it? What would they do for work if they could do anything in the world? What would they do if they lived in the Middle Ages?

Jot down their answers in your notebook or on a post-it note. Post ’em in the comments.

Don’t chicken out now. It’s going to be fun!