Talking with people is a good way to gather information. It’s efficient and fun. Interviewing techniques used to conduct research may seem difficult to master, but an interview is just a special kind of conversation. A successful job interview, for example, is one that most resembles a normal exchange of ideas between two people. Journalists conduct interviews all the time, and for the most part they learn how to do it on the job. For others, what happens before, during, and after an interview can seem unfamiliar. This short article tries to demystify the interview process and to help researchers use interviews to good advantage in their work.
Conducting an interview is much like talking with someone about, say, real estate values, flying an airplane, or starting a business. In a couple of key respects, though, an interview is not like an everyday conversation. One difference is that the exchange focuses on a related set of ideas or problems for a longer period of time than is the case with most conversations. Another difference is that researchers plan to put what they have learned in written form after the conversation is finished. Together, these differences mean that a successful interview requires good planning and good follow-up.
An inexperienced interviewer’s instinct is to write up a list of questions ahead of time. Then during the interview, the researcher ticks off the queries: “How was…?” The other person answers. “What do…?” The person answers again. “Why did…?” The structured back-and-forth exchange continues. That’s not a terrible way to conduct an interview: it’s better than coming in entirely unprepared. Still, it doesn’t give very good results. The interviewee will probably check his or her mental clock on the wall about five minutes into the exchange. Even more importantly, the researcher misses the chance to conduct a conversation that ranges beyond the limits defined by the original list of questions. Whole fields of useful information – not just stray bits here and there – go untouched as a result. So, here are some tips for conducting an interview that’s worthwhile for both participants:
• Write ample notes to prepare. Think about what you’d like to know. Think about what you already know, and how you can connect that knowledge to what you’d like to find out. Write down questions in your notes, but make them general and don’t worry if they are ill-formed. Also, be self-centered at this point. Focus on what you’d like to find out. The center of attention will shift more toward what the interviewee knows once the conversation starts.
• Communicate with your resource in advance. Get in touch ahead of time not only to set up the appointment, but also to let the person know what the interview will be about. That lets the person think about the subject a bit before you arrive. If you can, send an e-mail that outlines in general terms what you’d like to talk about during the meeting.
• Review your notes. If you write your notes shortly before the meeting, you may have time to review them only as you walk down a hallway or while you wait for the interviewee to take a phone call. That’s often all it takes. The main thing is to keep the contents of the notes fresh in your mind.
• Conduct the interview. Engage the person in an informal exchange. Listen carefully, and respond to what the other person says. Refer to your notes when you need to, but rely on your memory, too. Be willing to jump around – you don’t have to follow a set order in your questions. A good conversation doesn’t lend itself to that much structure anyway. Practiced interviewers learn that their best information comes in response to questions that didn’t occur to them as they prepared for the meeting. Ask follow-up questions, even if that means you have less time to cover ground you mapped out in advance. Good conversations are lively, like a dance of sorts, and that’s no time to be rigid.
• Check what you have learned. Ask questions designed to confirm what the other person has said. For important or complex points, summarize what you’ve heard and ask the other person to tell you whether you have it right. You want to communicate this information to your audience in writing and you need to know it well. Feeding the information back to the other person in your words cements your own understanding. It also gives the other person an opportunity to expand or qualify arguments, fill in gaps, correct errors, clarify ambiguous points, explain or modify controversial statements, and the like.
• Express your appreciation. The other person has given not only time, but has tried in the midst of a busy schedule to gather some important thoughts together for you. If you have developed some rapport with the person along the way, leave open the possibility of a phone call or other communication down the line. Follow up with an informal note of thanks via e-mail. You’ll appreciate the opportunity to confirm or clarify as you get further into your writing. So will the other person.
• Write up your meeting notes soon after the interview. Some people tape record interviews so nothing is lost. You’ll also have any notes you and your resource write during the session. The most valuable record of the interview, though, will be the detailed notes you write afterwards. They’re valuable because you can use them as a foundation (or a partial foundation) for the written product you are working on. Try if you can to write the notes no more than twenty-four or forty-eight hours after the interview. If you want to capture all the atmosphere and nuances of the conversation, write them within an hour or two after the talk. If a busy schedule doesn’t allow that, write them even if three or four days have passed. Do it even if you think you have forgotten most of what you talked about—your memory can retain things for a long time. Review the materials you have in your meeting file to put your memory in active mode.
• Type your post-meeting notes. Make the passage from rough notes to rough draft painless. After you organize your notes and put them into sentences and paragraphs, and after you integrate them with other material you have gathered, you’ll have something that starts to look presentable. Marking up notes is much easier – and more fun – than trying to write well-formed sentences on a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen. Moreover, you’ll reach your goal of a draft that others can review much more quickly than you thought possible.
These are basic steps of effective research conducted away from the library and internet. Let me offer one caution, though. Don’t treat these ideas and suggestions as step-by-step instructions. Compare what I’ve learned from my research and adapt it to your own work habits. Remember too that you’ll need to adapt your research techniques to the particular project or field you’re engaged in, whether it is historical, technical, financial, medical, scientific, political, or some other area. For some subject matter, talking with people is the only method of research available. For other projects, interviewing complements other research techniques. Either way, practice your interviewing skills and become adept with them. Make them part of your toolkit as a researcher and writer.