Journalism Tips: Making The Most Of Email Interviews

Let me preface this article with two caveats. Firstly, there’s no right way to conduct an interview (aside from maintaining some professionalism). Everyone develops their own style, and what’s right for me might not be right for you. My style tends toward the conversational. It’s not that I don’t prep questions. I actually prep a lot of them, more than I could reasonably ask. But I treat those questions as guideposts – they’re places to stop at and explore along the journey of a conversation, not turn-by-turn directions to be followed in strict linear sequence. Sure, I make certain to hit on the points I want to hit on, but I don’t worry too much about how I’m going to get to them – if things go as planned, I generally find I wind up in those places without really having to try. If it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to your readers, so trust your gut and go off-script if you’re onto something interesting.

That leads to the second caveat: I abhor email interviews, because they don’t offer any interplay. (I don’t even like phoners; so much is said in body language). They’re craft, not art; they’re classical, not jazz. Useful for gathering basic info, to be sure, but no fun, and your readers will snuff it out in a heartbeat. The original premise of this article was going to spend time on how to make the most of an email interview, but it turns out I don’t really have any good advice. You have Google, you have Facebook and Twitter, you know how to find whatever info about a band is already out there – I don’t need to tell you how to do your homework. Just try and ask the questions you’re genuinely curious about, in a way that lets the interviewee elaborate, and trust that your readers want to know the same things you do.

Email interviews aside, the best tip I can give for garnering a revealing interview is to let your subject do just that: reveal themselves. Give them room to answer; let them ramble. Let your interviewee follow their own train of thought – if they briefly touch on something that merits further exploration, make a mental note to come back to what they said, but don’t interrupt their flow.  

If there’s a pause in the conversation, I try to hold back, to let the moment breathe for a second rather than jumping in with another question right away. In doing so, I’m creating silence. Why? Because silence is awkward, and that awkwardness is something you can use to your advantage. Nobody likes awkward silences, and if you don’t fill that silence, odds are your subject will, often with things they would never have said otherwise. I’ve frequently found that the best, most interesting answer is the one that comes after the stock answer, when my interviewee suddenly finds themselves unexpectedly digging for something more to say. Sometimes, they even surprise themselves with what they reveal in those moments. My best interviews are the ones where I manage to make my subject feel comfortable while simultaneously keeping them ever-so-slightly off-balance. It’s definitely not a technique that comes easily or naturally, but it’s well worth practicing.

Yes, practicing. Especially when you’re first starting out, take every interview opportunity you can get, and pursure the ones that aren’t presented. There are a million bands out there dying to have someone talk to them, even if the results are just going to end up on a personal blog that nobody but their friends will ever see. There are plenty of times I’ve interviewed bands whose music I don’t care for, or about. Remember, your interview isn’t about the music, not really; it’s about the musician, and people are endlessly fascinating. Every artist has a story to sell, but there’s always a story behind the story, too. That’s the part that I find compelling, and it’s the part your readers will find compelling. The facts are important, sure, but – unless you’re getting an exclusive – every interview that artist does will contain those same facts. It’s the other stuff that will make your interview worth reading. I love the challenge of trying to unearth that hidden substory. The more interviews I do, the better I get at it.

There are even occasions where I’ve interviewed bands whose music I haven’t even heard. Usually, that involves a publicist throwing one of their baby bands in front of me  while I’m waiting on the artist I’m scheduled to chat with. It’s a dirty trick, but it happens. Instead of treating it as an annoyance, treat it as an opportunity to practice your skills. Even if it goes terribly, what have you got to lose aside from a couple minutes of your day? Also, it will keep you in said publicist’s good graces, which is always a plus, because access is everything.

When you’re done, take the time to listen back to your interviews. There’s nothing I hate more than transcribing a long audio interview, and yet it’s a vitally important part of my process, because it forces me to rehear as a third party what I originally heard as a participant. Generally, I give one listen while I transcribe; a second listen after transcription is done, to make sure that what I’ve written is accurate and captures the context and mood in which things were said; and then, finally, a full read through of the written interview to ensure for clarity and flow. Remember, it’s not just about getting a good interview, it’s about writing a good interview, and those aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Throughout, I’m not just listening for accuracy. I’m paying attention to what I should have asked but didn’t; noting where I jumped in when I should have let my subject talk; and listening for things I should have keyed in on for follow-up, but missed. Every mistake is a learning opportunity, a chance for me to do better the next time out. Because ultimately, interviewing is like any other skill – the more you work at it, the better you will be.

Jesse Richman is a contributor to PropertyOfZack and someone you generally need to know in the alternative music scene. If you would like to learn more about Jesse’s efforts, be sure to follow him on Twitter.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.