The Art of Conducting E-Interviews
Kamala Thiagarajan | August 2004
We often hear people say that the world has shrunk to a global village. It’s perfectly true, because today, a writer from as far away as Zambia can reasonably expect to get published in any American magazine-even one that deals with specific and local content! You may wonder how this may be possible-especially since a writer living so far away doesn’t have even a prayer of a chance of gathering enough local information to satisfy the editor of this kind of magazine. But, rest assured-it can be done! The truth is that the Internet has opened up avenues for writers like never before. Amid the plethora of opportunities if offers-the most significant would certainly be the fact that some of the world’s most intelligent brains, dedicated researchers, famous celebrities, and wild stars-(all potential interviewees and therefore articles waiting to happen) are nothing but a mouse-click away!
E-interviewing is a rapidly emerging trend in the journalism scene. It’s also a boon for writers who want to work for an international audience. If you live in a secluded corner of the globe and want that break into foreign magazines, interviewing your own local experts for your articles will not do. You need to include international voices, or at least the opinions of experts that the readers of the magazine you are targeting can better relate to, or even contact if necessary. The first thing to do when you start work on any article is to find out how many people you must interview. Who is the best person to shed light on your theory? Once that decision is made, it is only a matter of finding them on the Internet, getting their consent, constructing your questionnaire, and sending it off!
For instance, I recently published an article on color therapy. I looked up the Web resource for the Association of Global Color therapists. From this resource, I collected e-mail addresses and contacted a handful of therapists, introducing myself as a writer, telling them more about my article and asking them whether they would mind providing me with more information-both on the subject and about their own experience. Nine times out of ten, I received replies to my request, and the responses were overwhelming. Here were busy professionals based all over the world ready to share their knowledge and expertise with me! Not only were they accessible, but I didn’t even have to get out of my nightgown to interview them! I was also able to re-sell the same article in several different countries, taking care to quote therapists of that particular nationality!
Today, writers all over the world agree that interviewing experts over e-mail is easier, faster, and cheaper. Consider the fact that there are no traveling expenses, no jet lag, and no wasting your time waiting endless hours for your quarry to emerge from his cramped office! "When interviewing people for stories, especially senior officials, I always make it clear that I prefer email interviews. They sometimes suggest that we chat over phone because they don’t like typing but I insist on email!" says Mahesh Shantaram, a journalist based in Washington , U.S.A. "An email interview holds many advantages for both the interviewer as well as the interviewee. It eliminates the chance of misquoting or being misquoted. The interviewee has time to think about what s/he wants to say and put it down in well-composed words. Not all people can be as coherent with their ideas on the phone as they can be on email. Of course, the greatest factor in favor of email interviews is that I don’t have to bother taking notes or transcribing an audio recording," he explains. "To ensure that I get my answers on time, I call the person to request an interview, send an email questionnaire, and then call back again after a couple of days to follow up."
However, one thing to be wary of is that some people, even face-to-face can be very evasive, especially if you happen to be asking them something controversial! Over e-mail, they can skirt over the issue entirely or deliberately misunderstand it. The writer also loses out on the facial expressions and body language that sometimes speak louder than words! "I’ve been both interviewed and have in turn interviewed others online-via email," says Hope C. Clark, who functions as editor of the popular writing newsletter, Funds For Writers. "I feel that e-interviews are great for the interviewee because they permit the person to think before responding, even allow them time to make revisions in their original statements. However, I feel an e-interview is detrimental to the writer/interviewer because the answers more often that not can be ambiguous or unclear." One way to avoid this would be to study the subject you are writing about thoroughly and to be clear as to what your expectations are while interviewing professionals. "The most important thing I’ve learnt with e-interviews is to try and anticipate all the answers that you need," says Percy M. Alfred, an Indian technical writer and freelance journalist who has contributed to several writing newsletters and national magazines. "You should know exactly what you’re looking for in your article, from all angles. The first time I conducted an interview, I didn’t really anticipate the answers and I had follow-up questions! Sometimes interviewees might not want to write through three or four emails. This is something that comes with practice." One must also ask the person if they have any additional information that they might think is pertinent to your article. That way, you are able to cover significant ground without seeming overtly pushy or without having to go back and forth with additional questions.
Some writers have also perfected the knack of interviewing via live chats since they feel the medium is more spontaneous and the next best substitute to a live interview. Rohini K., a freelancer from India says, "Chat has the advantages of your getting exactly the information or quotes that you need, provided the questions you pose are very specific! If you ask someone to merely "talk of their experiences," the interview will most likely come to a dead end. Instead, ask them whether or not they enjoyed it and you’ll soon have some answers!"
Keeping your questions brief while interviewing via live chats will ensure that the answers you receive are relevant and spontaneous.
Patience is a virtue that just can’t be stressed enough. Remember-these are all busy professionals so be sure to contact them well ahead of your deadlines! You must also give them enough time to get back to you with their answers. If that doesn’t convince you-then let me tell you that all these writers I’ve interviewed for this piece have either chatted with me live or given their interviews via e-mail!
Some Quick Tips on How to Conduct an E-Interview
- Always introduce yourself first, including a list of your writing credits. Be brief, but make it clear that you are a professional writer.
- Be polite in all correspondence, but never "gush" or send personal letters. Keep it all businesslike and courteous.
- Always request an e-interview in the first instance. Perhaps you might say, "I was hoping that you would share your expertise with our readers and was wondering if it would be alright for me to mail you a brief list of questions?" Never shoot off questions until you have your expert’s consent, so you know for certain that he or she is interested in answering your queries.
- If you are interviewing someone particularly famous, a professor or researcher, be familiar with his/her work first.
- Ask intelligent, brief questions. Try not to ask more than five at a time (remember, the other person has to type out all the answers, and that can prove to be very tiresome!)
- Always follow up. For instance, after you receive their answers, make it a point to thank them. Later when the piece is published, be sure to send them a copy, nevermind the additional expense. By doing this, you build up long term contacts. And if you have a doubt or are researching a similar subject, all you have to do is call them again and you’ll find that they’ll be happy to oblige!
- E-interviewing, unlike face-to-face interviews, requires even more knowledge of human nature. Be sure to always start off on a positive note to capture someone’s interest. For instance you could say, "I’ve read extensively about your research and am very interested in the subject of..."
- Be confident and clear and you’ll find that most experts are approachable and very generous with their time!
Kamala Thiagarajan is a writer and journalist based in Madurai, South India. She has published over two hundred articles which have appeared in general interest and lifestyle magazines all over the globe. Her writing spans a variety of travel/health/entertainment and lifestyle features read by a diverse audience in over six countries.