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How do you interview someone?

Updated Thursday 28th July 2005

You might be taking part in a language survey, or doing it for some other reason - we've got some tips for getting the best out of an interview

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Going off to interview people might sound like a very formal and perhaps slightly scary thing to do. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’ll go a lot more smoothly and yield richer material if your interviewees are relaxed and enjoying the interview!

To help you feel more comfortable, and avoid some of the mistakes first-timers often make, here’s our guide to getting the best from your interview.

Charles Gibson interviews Fred Thompson [Image:fredthompson under CC-BY-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon fredthompson via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Even the professionals benefit from proper preparation. Charles Gibson interviews Fred Thompson [Image: fredthompson under CC-BY-SA licence]

Preparation

Take plenty of time to prepare before the interview. If you put a little time in then you’ll find the whole process much more enjoyable – and so will your interviewees!

  • When trying to find people to interview, make it clear who you are, what the recording is for and why you are doing it. This might seem overkill if you are interviewing friends, family or neighbours, but it is polite and good practice
  • Make contact with your interviewees and arrange a mutually convenient time for the interview
  • Check if they have to be finished by a certain time. Essentially, find out when is the best time for them. You’ll get a better interview if they’re not distracted by time or other commitments. We’d suggest that you allow about an hour for a typical interview based on the spidergram, plus extra time for any general socialising before and after.
  • Make sure there is somewhere suitable to do the interview – ask if they have somewhere quiet.
  • On the day before the interview, call your interviewees and check they are still OK to meet as agreed and that too many people haven’t dropped out, making the group unviable.
  • Remember they are giving you their time so be prepared to be flexible in order to fit in with them.
  • Plan before you record – think about what you want to achieve from the recording – the spidergram will prompt you, but you’ll need to be familiar with it beforehand if you are to get the best from your time with them
  • Always check your equipment is working properly before you leave - do a test recording of yourself at home to make sure you really know how to use it
  • Take plenty of recording materials (such as tape) and batteries, in case there is no convenient power socket
  • Make sure you have all your equipment – make a checklist so you don’t forget anything
  • Take plenty of copies of the spidergram and the biographical information sheets with you

Safety

It’s all to easy to get caught up with setting up the interview and the equipment and so on, but don’t let yourself forget about the most important issue – safety:

  • Make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you expect to be finished
  • If you are unsure of the recording environment and feel vulnerable at all, consider taking someone with you
  • Make sure you have a contact telephone number for someone to contact you in case of an emergency
  • Don’t put yourself in a situation that you think might be risky – if in doubt then take advice

The Interview: Getting Started

People sometimes feel nervous when actually faced with a microphone. So it’s worth not launching immediately into the interview, try to take a few minutes to have a chat and perhaps have a cup of tea. Hopefully this will help break the ice and you’ll get more from the interview as a result. To put your interviewee at ease it’s a good idea to cover these points before you start the recording:

  • Try not to begin recording immediately – remind them what the interview is for
  • Try to have only the people in the room the interviewee is happy to have with you. Ideally it’s best to have just those present who are participating in the interview
  • Explain the spidergram
  • Explain that you have to hold the microphone quite close to get the best quality sound but don’t sit too close that they feel uncomfortable
  • If people are sitting at a table, try and sit next to them, rather than across from them which can seem like a job interview. Sitting by the side of them is much more friendly and less formal

The Interview: Asking the Questions

Although this is an informal interview, almost a chat, it is useful to follow some basic interview techniques. Here’s a few pointers to help you:

  • Ask open questions that encourage full answers – for example begin your questions with “What…?”, “Why...?” or “How...?"
  • Sit close to your interviewee and maintain eye contact with them and as far as possible try to nod and smile rather than say “Yes”, “Uh-uh “,”I see”, ”That’s interesting” and so on all the time. Try not to talk over your interviewees. Let them do the talking, you are asking the questions.
  • Listen to what your interviewee is saying, look interested and engaged and “pick-up” on interesting comments, don’t be afraid to ask more about something interesting they’ve said – above all ‘listen’
  • Ask for a short summary if they’re getting long-winded
  • Before you move on to the next part of the spidergram, ask the interviewees if there is anything more they would like to talk about in that section that they haven’t had the chance to discuss
  • Have the confidence to repeat questions if they haven’t answered the question the first time, but don’t keep pressing them if they clearly haven’t got anything more to say about that particular point
  • Stay in control – you must direct the interview not the interviewee. If the interviewee starts talking about something unrelated – let them finish (it might be interesting and it might seem rude to interrupt them immediately) and then pick up from where they started to deviate away from the point.

After the Interview

At the end of the interview it is really easy to focus on packing up, especially if you are in a rush, but it’s important to take a moment or two to cover these points:

  • Listen back to a few seconds of your recording at the end of the interview – to make sure that it has recorded ok
  • Don’t forget to take the time to thank your interviewees for their time and contributions
  • Label your tape with the name of the interviewees and the recording date
  • Check everyone has filled in the biographical information sheets
  • Make sure you have collected all your belongings – if you wrote a checklist of things to take with you then you can use this to check you haven’t forgotten anything as you pack up again
  • If your interviewee asks for a copy of the recording, try and ensure that you send them a copy as soon as possible. It’s an easy way to say ‘thank you’ for their contribution
 

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