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12 tips for conducting a great interview

Jo Johnston

Friendly & versatile copywriter/copyeditor | B2B, NGO & public-sector clients.

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No two days are the same for a freelancer. If you work in marketing or editorial work, you may find yourself wearing many different hats — copywriter, copy-editor, researcher, journalist, editorial manager and interviewer.

Have you ever had to conduct telephone research with your client’s customers to get their opinions on a product? Interview a company’s staff for a piece of internal comms? Or capture the personal stories of people who have been helped by charities? Then you’ll need to hone your interview skills and techniques.

These 12 tips for conducting a good interview can help you approach the interview in your best frame of mind and glean that golden quote.

1. Are you the right person for the job?

First things first. What kind of qualities do you need to be a good interviewer? Empathy. Inquisitiveness. Openness. Directness.

Be aware of your strengths and weakness during the actual interview. This will help you guide a conversation in order to bring out the best in the interviewee.

Ask yourself, are you genuinely interested in others and what they are saying or are you clock-watching, wondering how you’re going to get through your questions so that you can get on with writing the story?

2. Prepare 

You may be under the pressure of a looming deadline, but try to create a relaxed atmosphere, so that the interviewee feels at ease.

If the subject matter is very personal, then it’s wise to spend some time with the interviewee beforehand doing a normal everyday activity, so that you can get to know each other and build trust.

And make sure that you explain how the interview will be used by bringing with you an example of a printed or digital resource.

Ask yourself, what would it take for me to open up to a stranger? What would I expect in this scenario?

3. Get consent 

Most organisations worth their salt will have their own consent forms, which interviewees or project staff may need to complete to show they’ve given permission to share their story.

Make sure that you’ve mentioned this beforehand to your interviewee and ideally got informal consent before you start. Springing a form on them at the end of the interview can not only be intimidating, but could contribute towards them changing their mind.

If you’re interviewing someone with a medical condition, make sure they’ve given permission to share their health status publicly, and that it won’t have any negative repercussions for them in their community.

When interviewing a child or young adult, someone impartial to your organisation has to be present. Someone who can act as a guardian, without any personal gain. Most of all, make sure that your presence will not compromise the child’s rights or safety.

For more info, Unicef has developed ethical guidelines for those reporting on children’s issues.

4. Find the ideal location

If possible, give your interviewee some options for the location of the interview. They may feel more comfortable in their own home instead of a studio or office. Or they may prefer an email intstead of a face-to-face interview.

And are you, the interviewer, comfortable? If you’re sitting on a rickety chair or balancing your recorder on one knee and a camera and notebook on the other while drinking your host’s herbal tea, then your awkwardness may come across.

5. Make sure you know who’ll be present 

Lots of people listening in (such as a film crew) can be daunting if you’re talking about personal issues.

If you’re working with a photographer who needs to capture expressions and the body language of the interviewee, you may need to put this on hold until after the interview or weave it in gently by taking regular breaks.

Show some courtesy to the interviewee and allow them to decide who is present.

6. 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.

7. Time it

Before you start, think about how long your interview should last.

Start with 30-45 minutes, and then maybe have a tea break or even come back another day. Your interviewee may show you when they are tired, but stop before it gets to this stage.

Read the signs.

8. Plan your questions

Make a list of the questions beforehand. You may be tempted to wing it in order to keep things conversational, but it’s wise to have a checklist to make sure you’ve covered the basics.

It’s not always a good idea to give your interviewee an example of the questions in advance as that often only brings a stilted, rehearsed answer.

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 the expression of feelings and thoughts, and involves asking questions that begin ‘Why? How? What’s your opinion…?’

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 covered. Most people that I’ve interviewed are pleased to be asked their opinion and are only too willing to share information.

Be curious, friendly and positive, and make sure you don’t interrupt too much.

8. Book a good translator

A good translator is critical. If they suck at building a rapport with your interviewee then you won’t get very far. So spend some time getting to know your translator. Do they understand why you’re asking certain types of questions?

Think about the subject matter. If interviewing a woman about a traumatic experience, they may be more comfortable with a female translator.

Take time to consider local customs and traditions.

10. Don’t forget payment or compensation

An interviewee may expect to get something in return for their time and personal story. Rightly so, I know I would.

But make sure that any compensation doesn’t cause rivalry in the community or attract interviewees simply because they want something in return. Compensation does not have to be financial but could be gifts in kind or incentives.

Make sure to check your client’s or the organisation’s policy on compensation for an interview.

11. Ensure confidentiality

It’s wise to have a word-for-word transcript of the interview for archive purposes or in case of future disputes. This should be clear on your consent form and stored in accordance with your organisation’s GDPR guidelines.

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 or ensuring anonymity for vulnerable people.

Keep transcription records for as long as the material is in the public domain.

12. Sign off your interview

Show your interviewee respect. 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.

And finally… say a big thank you and spend some time chatting afterwards – don’t just rush off now that you’ve got what you need. Often you’ll capture extra descriptive info at this stage, the detail that helps you frame the interview when writing up your story.

You may even glean that golden quote!

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