Ten Steps to a Great Interview

interviewOver the years, I’ve done a lot of interviews, both in connection with work and for personal research purposes. I’ve never had to do adversarial interviews, where you’re trying to dig out information your subject is unwilling to disclose, so if that’s what you’re looking to do, seek advice elsewhere. Here’s a combination of advice from MIT, from eHow, and from my own experience — the ten steps to a great interview:

  1. If possible, get permission to record the interview, or at least take copious notes: Recording allows you to pay attention to your subject, but can intimidate some people. Notes can be a distraction, but they do force you to pay attention. The objective is to capture as much of the interview as possible, as literally as possible. You will always learn more from a second listen or read of what your subject told you.
  2. Make sure you’re talking to the right person: A brief advance discussion can determine whether the person you’ve scheduled the interview with has the information you’re looking for, or whether someone else would be a better candidate, saving you and your subject a lot of wasted time.
  3. Arrange, plan & research the interview in advance: The time you spend querying your subject about information you could have researched in advance is time that could be spent delving deeper into your subject’s mind — which is the most valuable part of the interview. Don’t show up uninvited — agree on time, place, length, format, scope, and purpose of the interview in advance.
  4. Consider whether to send the questions in advance: This can help your subject prepare better, but could also inhibit him/her, if you ask supplementary questions that he/she’s not prepared for. Make it clear that you reserve the right to ask additional questions. Unless you want written responses to your questions instead of an interview at all, discourage your subject from responding in writing.
  5. Establish rapport and trust with your subject up front: Thank him/her up front for his/her time and cooperation, set the ground rules, ask if there are subjects you should avoid, and what use you can/cannot make of the results of your interview. Offer your credentials and a brief background of the reason for the interview if you think it will help establish rapport. If time permits, begin with casual conversation to find common interests and common ground. Consider offering a small gift to the subject at the conclusion of the interview, thank the subject again at the end of the interview, and ask if it is possible to contact him/her with additional questions later, and if so, how. Always be courteous, don’t interrupt, and if the subject appears annoyed, change the subject. And turn your cell phone off during the interview.
  6. Listen, explore, challenge, probe: Don’t be wedded to your prepared questions. The discussion could well take you in unforeseen and important directions, so you need to be flexible and let the conversation go where it will. If you don’t understand, say so. If something strikes you as implausible or illogical, ask how your subject knows or why he/she believes what he’s saying. Make close note of sources cited by the subject, and if necessary, ask how names and words are spelled. Think of your audience as you ask questions, and how interested they will be in the questions and answers you’re soliciting. At the end of the interview, offer your subject the opportunity to talk about anything else he/she thinks would be of interest to you or your audience, and if there’s someone else they think you might benefit from talking to.
  7. Pay attention to the surroundings: Make observations about the subject’s office (if that’s where you meet) and the subject him/herself — unusual appearance, body language or behaviour. Learn to read between the lines if answers are evasive or emotionally-charged. You might discover some things that the subject doesn’t want to, or didn’t intend to, tell you directly.
  8. Respect confidentiality, including that of your sources if requested: Never betray a confidence — or your career as interviewer will be over.
  9. Review your tapes/notes right after the interview: You’d be amazed how quickly you’ll forget what he/she meant, or you meant, and additional annotations will remind you later and avoid confusion.
  10. Verify what you’ve been told, if you’re going to be relying heavily on it: If your subject has cited other sources, check them. If something has been said is contentious or dubious, run it by another source and check the underlying facts. Some people have hidden agendas, and will have no qualms using you as a mechanism to promote them. And some people are genuinely misinformed, and if you get back to them on a factual error they have made they will probably be grateful to have it scrubbed from the interview transcript.

See? Nothing to it.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ten Steps to a Great Interview

  1. aisling says:

    great tips dave, interviewing can be a very daunting thing, for both parties. neither of you wants to look unprepared, or stupid, especially if you are recording it as well! So, like you said, if you are talking to the right person, they should be the most knowledgeable or appropriate person to get for the interview, so they shouls be ready. Now it is just up to you! I have made a few documentaries, the last one that i worked on is currently on CitizenSHIFT – http://citizen.nfb.ca where we interviewed teens with disabilities who made this awesome science-fiction film “The Forgotten Ones” (incedentally, I also worked as the Assistant Director and Associate producer on this film/doc) and these kids did not prepare themselves in the traditional sense for the interview, but had such honest answers, and believed in everything that they said, that we could not have asked for a better result. You can check out “The Forgotten Ones” the film and the accompanying documentary online at http://citizen.nfb.ca/onf/info?aid=3561 and also watch clips from the documentary “Summit” – where teens with disabilities interview each other, and you will see some raw, candid answers, so to some of the most simple, yet complex questions that teens (and everyone) asks themselves about their experiences. http://citizen.nfb.cathanks again Dave aislingA.Chin-Yee@nfb.ca

  2. Bruce Winter says:

    Point 6 is crucial Dave. To be effective, an interviewer needs to listen, with their ears and their eyes. You’ve written about this before. We are so engaged, ready to show off what we know by talking, we don’t listen well.Keep the questions simple. For example: What do you mean when you say…? Could you clarify this point…? I’m sorry I don’t understand what you just said…?Stay conscious, for example office decor particularly pictures can tell you allot about your subject. They are good ‘conservation’ starters.One more thing the interviewee is always nervous, more so if they have something to hide, cresting a strategy to reduce that tension will deliver superior interviews that generate useful and pertinent information.

  3. Beth Crowley says:

    How can you guys be so blind? Do any of you do research?Bethhttp://coasm.blogspot.com/

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Certainly the style and skill of the interviewee is important — I recall when people tried to interview Marshall McLuhan he used to turn the interview around and interview them. And Bruce, you’re right, and there are some interesting techniques that can be used to put the interviewee at ease.

Comments are closed.