I remember a client sent me one writer’s pitch for a case study. He demanded airfare to the client’s site, three nights hotel and meals on top of his hefty fee. His idea was that he had to meet the company on the ground, really get to know them and then he would write the case study. This is a long winded and expensive way to go about it. The same thing can be done over the phone in a couple of calls.
This approach probably ties back to old school journalistic ideas about the good old personal touch. You get indoctrinated into how only the in-person interview gives you the insight into the soul of the person. But hang on! We are not all Barbara Walters here. She wants emotion. It’s her job to break through the social veneer and show the audience TV’s version of the real person. TV is entertainment, after all. Business writing is something else entirely.
The last thing I want is an interviewee to burst into tears. I want technical facts and maybe a little color. I don’t even want to interview people over the phone. I do it at times, but I avoid it if I can. Email interviews are far more efficient.
If I have a story that needs three interviews, I’ll generally compose a handful of questions in a few minutes, send them out to four or five sources and over the course of the next week, I’ll probably get three sets of answers. It’s efficient. My way: 15 minutes of my time and I have all the interviews. Over the phone, this would take me many hours that would be spread over a couple of weeks. Using email, there is no need to play phone tag, mess around with Outlook invites, take part in lengthy conference calls, and the like.
What about color? Sometimes I get some colorful answers. Other times I get some awful responses full of corporate banalities. But overall, I get enough meat to write the story. If my email interviews don’t give me any color, I can always add it myself.
Why waste a week to arrange a convenient time for a phone call and then an hour on the horn, when you can boil it down to half a dozen questions that can be sent out to multiple sources? This saves me dozens of hours a month. Most phone interviews are overlong and suffer from corporate interference. Sometimes I suffer through six people being in on a call and someone else doing the questioning. What would take me 15 minutes at best, chews up a whole hour. Ugh.
Sometimes you end up with useless answers. A lazy marketing person copy/texts web pages and sends them to you as answers (or the company can’t help itself but spout self-serving propaganda in every utterance). I either don’t use that source again or ask for real answers. The trick is to get enough interviews in that you can afford to waste one. In addition, it is up to the writer to sift through the inevitable propaganda and pick out the worthwhile quotes and concrete facts.
There also comes a time when you have to get on the phone. Either someone won’t respond to emails, or you can’t find a good email contact. Or the deadline is looming and you are out of other options.
The phone is always there as a tool – either because the client or interviewee prefers it or you can’t communicate on any other channel. There are some people who will only respond to phone calls, never email. So I use both approaches. But I favor email interviews in a ratio of about 9 to 1.
One final point: record keeping. Phone interviews can lead to misquotes, or the interviewee denying that they said what you wrote. But if you have an email interview, you have a firm record of what was said.