Ditch the email interview: why it’s always good to talk


There was a recent post on twitter where an exasperated journalist was berating students for contacting her asking to carry out interviews about the life of a journalist via email.

The journalist’s point was that these aspiring journos should be mastering the art of interviewing – asking questions, listening to the answers and asking supplementary questions based on those answers. Pinging out an email with some bland questions, tends to receive bland, censored answers and result in a bland, uninteresting article.

I ‘liked’ the post because it rang true on many levels. As a reader, I am bored to the back teeth by interviews, particularly in Sunday newspapers and lifestyle magazines, in which someone in the public eye should prove to be a fascinating subject but instead we learn that his/her favourite animal is a rhinoceros and they love doing work for charity.

As a journalist, agreement with the author of the tweet is based on my own personal experiences. Due to some cost-cutting measures taken by one of the organisations I write for, I have been asked to conduct a number of interviews with coaches and players via email.

Sarah Juggins

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that coaches can offer some of the most interesting material for articles. They are often former players themselves but they are no longer shackled in what they can or can’t say and they have developed very strong opinions.

That rarely comes across in an emailed answer. You can almost imagine the irritation as the coach receives an email asking him or her for thoughts on a game, or how the season is likely to pan out. The answers, understandably are short, if the coach bothers to answer at all. And any attempt to get an answer to a controversial question can easily be deflected.

An email also restricts the chance to ask follow-up questions – if someone is irritated with one email, they are hardly likely to respond willingly to a second one.

With emailed questions, there is also the danger of regurgitating information. It is very easy for an interviewee to trot out the old lines in an emailed reply. How often have you seen an interviewee being quoted or giving similar answers in a number of different media outlets?

Call the person up and it is a totally different experience. As the conversation develops there will be long periods when you can sit back and let your voice recorder do its thing or, as the author of the tweet suggested, you could be scribbling away furiously using shorthand. (Does anyone do that these days?).

I recently wrote an article for a hockey magazine, Hockey World News, in which I was given license to write a 2,000 word interview with international hockey coach Kwan Browne. It was a joyful experience. We spoke for an hour, I learnt about his childhood in Trinidad and Tobago, his thoughts on the current international scene and everything in between. The interview was carried out via WhatsApp, so no costly telephone bills and, because we both had space and time, the experience was a quality one for both parties.

Award winner

Even more recently I was able to meet up with the subject of an interview and talk at length over several cups of coffee. Again, the ability to form a relationship, develop ideas and expand on questions meant the finished article was entertaining, informative and brought the subject to life.

That is, of course, not always possible. Many of the people I interview on a weekly basis live in Argentina or Australia. But, the advent of Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime are tools in the journalist’s kit-box that should be used to their max.

And, so long as you work within the subject’s time-frame, most sports people, with the possible exception of professional footballers, are happy to talk.

From a trainee journalist’s perspective I get it. There is a safety net in sending an email. You can carefully craft your questions, there is no danger of being called out for a lack of knowledge or an inappropriate response. You maintain an element of control of the situation. But, carrying out an interview, where you are talking to someone on a one-to-one basis is a special privilege.

How many people, who love their sport, would relish the opportunity to have a one-on-one interview with a player or coach? It is a chance to build relationships, get to know people within the sports industry and, most importantly, to get unique insight and to tell their story from a  totally fresh perspective.

So my advice to people entering the arena is simple. Contact the potential subject of your interview – at this stage an email is allowed – schedule a call or, even better, a meeting and spend time preparing questions that will draw the person out. And once the interview is underway, make sure the list of questions in front of you doesn’t become a restriction – if the conversation deviates, give it space to do so, who knows what journalism gold you might unearth.