Often in my role as a copywriter for global not-for-profits, I conduct interviews with project staff and beneficiaries. A copywriter may also be asked to conduct telephone research with their clients’ customers or interview staff or suppliers for corporate communications. Journalists too don’t just rely on their own views, but pepper articles with someone else’s perspective to get an objective response to an issue.
These basic guidelines for conducting a good interview can help you approach the interview in your best frame of mind and glean that golden quote.
Are you a good listener?
Start off with yourself. Are you interested in what someone’s saying or are you clock-watching, wondering how you’re going to get through your questions?
Be aware of your strengths and weakness. A good copywriter doesn’t necessarily make a good interviewer.
Listening and guiding a conversation will bring out the best in others.
You may be under pressure, but try to create an atmosphere of calm during the interview, so that the interviewee feels relaxed. If the subject matter is very personal, then it’s wise to spend some time with the interviewee beforehand doing normal everyday activities so that you can get to know each other and build trust. I certainly wouldn’t share my feelings and personal experiences with a stranger.
Most organisations worth their salt will have their own consent forms that anyone interviewed may need to complete to show you have obtained permission to share their story. Make sure you’ve mentioned this beforehand to your interviewee and ideally got informal consent before you start, as springing it upon them at the end can not only be intimidating, but could contribute towards them changing their mind.
Make sure you explain what the interview will be used for by bringing with you an example of a printed resource.
If interviewing someone with a medical condition, make sure they’ve given permission to share their status publicly and that it won’t have any negative repercussions for them in their community.
When interviewing a child or young adult, make sure that someone impartial to your organisation is present, who can act as guardian without any personal gain.
If possible, give your interviewee some options for the location of the interview. They may feel more comfortable in their own home rather than in a studio or office.
Allow them to decide who is present. Lots of people listening in can be very daunting.
If you are working with a photographer who needs to capture expressions and body language, you may need to put this on hold until after the interview or somehow weave it in gently (if you’re discussing a sensitive subject).
Keep it conversational
Although you may be pressed for time or working under difficult conditions, keep your interview conversational rather than interrogational. This needs to be a pleasant experience for your interviewee, otherwise they’re unlikely to share their most precious thoughts.
Don’t get too sidelined if the interviewee goes off on a tangent, but allow them to expand on an issue if it’s important to them.
Before you start, think about how long your interview should last. Start with 30 minutes then maybe have a break or even come back another day if needed.
Read the signs. Your interviewee may show you when they are tired. Try to stop before it gets to this stage.
Make a list of the questions beforehand – it’s wise to have a checklist to make sure you’ve covered the basics.
It’s not always wise to give your interviewee an example of the questions in advance as that often only brings a stilted, rehearsed answer (terrible for filming). And in some circumstances using the words, ‘conversation’ or ‘chat’ about their experiences, would be better to say than an ‘interview’ which may make some people nervous.
A good interview usually seeks both personal and factual information, and needs to use a combination of closed and open questions. A closed question has a predetermined answer eg, ‘how many people are in your family?’
An open question encourages feelings and attitudes and involves asking questions that begin ‘Why? How? What’s your opinion…?’
Open questions encourage interviewees to answer as they feel appropriate and often inspires more unique detail.
Be curious, friendly and positive, and make sure you don’t interrupt too much. People are more likely to open up to someone who is genuinely interested in them.
At the end of your interview, don’t forget to ask if they have any questions for you or if they’ve something to say that you haven’t touched upon. Most people I’ve interviewed are proud of being asked their opinion and are only too willing to share information.
The interview is not only about your interviewee’s words, but also what they tell you in their body language and facial expressions, their personal environment, the jokes you’ve shared or any other little quirky moment that happened.
They are as important as the actual questions. If they suck at building a rapport with your interviewee then you may not get very far. So spend some time getting to know your translator. Do they understand why you’re asking certain types of questions? Why are they doing this job? What motivates them?
Also think about the gender of your translator and the subject matter. If interviewing a woman about a traumatic experience, they may not want to disclose this to a man. Think about local customs and traditions too.
You – the interviewer
Are you comfortable? If you’re uncomfortable – whether that be sitting on a rickety chair or balancing your Dictaphone, camera and notebook on one knee while drinking your guests’ tea, then this comes across to your interviewee. So, as far as possible, try to create a good set up for yourself.
Show your interviewee the respect you’d expect. If they’ve asked for a copy of the article or a pack of photos from the shoot, be sure to get it to them as part of your follow-up work.
Payment or compensation
Rightly so, an interviewee may expect to get something in return for their time and personal story. You may need to take guidance here from the organisation’s policy.
Some issues to consider are: making sure that any compensation does not cause rivalry in the community or attract interviewees simply because they want something back. Compensation may not necessarily be financial and could be gifts in kind.
Make sure you have a word-for-word transcript of the interview for archive purposes and that it’s stored in accordance with your organisation’s data protection policy.
Be mindful of how you write up the interview. It may not be necessary to include a full name or area location. This is especially important when identifying children. Make sure you’ve discussed beforehand what private information can be released.
Say a big thank you upon leaving and maybe even spend some more time chatting informally – don’t just rush off now that you’ve got what you need!
Have you got any tricks of the trade to get the best out of others in an interview situation? Please share your tips or further resources here.