Writing, Reading, and Smiling . . . It's Contagious.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Conducting a Tidy Interview

An interview is like a garden. If one tills at regular intervals, weeds are stopped before they can take hold. If the tiller breaks, plan to harvest ragweed at summer’s end.

Throughout my recent project, Haunted Voices from My Past: True Narratives of an Ohio Family, I conducted a series of interviews with family members. While some went exceptionally well, others failed miserably. One night after screeching a plethora of words at Hal (my computer) and frying my keyboard with tears, I renamed a parsed audio file “Nearly Ruined Track,” and set about compiling a list of interviewing tips to prevent further self-inflicted damage upon the computer and my own sanity.

A Tidy Interview

Technical Tips:

  1. Two Writing Devices: Although basic, this is the most important. Seriously, folks, pencil leads break and pens do run out of ink.

    • I prefer the four-ink style pens. This gives me four barrels of ink and allows me to change colors for highlighting different instances.

  1. Spiral Notebook: If a recording device fails, handwritten notes are an important backup.

    • My choice is the steno-type notebook with green-tinted pages and red rule down the center. I can write faster by using only ½ of the page (my wrist is not sliding back and forth over a huge expanse of paper) and the spiral allows me to flip pages quickly. It is also small and fits discreetly on my lap.

    • Notes also provide a written time line for the location of information on recorded audio files.

  1. Recording Device: This piece of equipment is essential for direct quoting and locating information missed during the interview.

    • Always ask interviewee’s permission to record the interview.

    • The recording of an interview is for personal use only. It is to assist in writing.

    • I am the owner of a digital voice recorder, and I cannot imagine conducting an interview without one. Weighing a few ounces, it makes the shoebox-style recorder out-of-date and ridiculous. It dispenses with the annoying hum of background noise and picks up voices within a conference-sized room (while tucked in my pocket). I also do not have the hassle of rewinding and forwarding through ten miles of audio tape in order to find the exact section I want. When I finish recording with my digital recorder, I plug its USB connection into my computer and download the recording. I can then archive it and play it using quality audio programs.

      • I recommend taking along extra batteries, although I have never had an issue with this. As long as my batteries are fully charged, I can record for HOURS. On my current charge I have recorded approximately 7 hrs. and the batteries are at ½ power.

Practical Tips:

  1. Always Thank the Interviewee: The interviewer is potentially wasting the interviewee’s time.

    • If the interview is not essential, do not conduct it.

      • I was once interviewed by a clumsy reporter who did not remember my name after leaving me an urgent message to call her back (she also insisted I had the wrong number). After realizing she did indeed contact me, she was ardent about writing a feature article on my work and asked me a series of questions. The interview lasted about thirty minutes. One month later when I enquired about the article, she replied that she was not able to use it because my residence was too far from her newspaper’s scope (although she knew of my location from the press release I sent her).

        • The lesson: Remembering my annoyance from her wasting my time, I never conduct an interview I do not plan to use. The wasting of the interviewee’s time is bad manners.

  1. Out of Sight, Out of Mind: People often become nervous when around recording devices and note taking.

    • To avoid this, I keep my small notebook on my lap and my digital recorder out of the line of vision (usually in my pocket). Also, make eye contact and smile (nodding also works). This puts your subject at ease.

  1. Have Questions Prepared: Have a list of questions to give the interviewee beforehand.

    • Interviews should flow. Stammering and awkward moments are a result of embarrassing, awkward, or startling questions. Interviews are not pop quizzes or police questionings.

    • Have questions at hand. Paper shuffling is a distraction.

    • If questioning the elderly, do not expect the immediate answer of a question pertaining to their childhood. Giving an elderly person a list of questions before the interview is beneficial. This allows the person time to recall events.

  1. Questions? Save Them for Appropriate Pauses: Questions are best asked when the subject pauses or needs prompting to continue.

    • Also, the end of the interview is a good time to double-check facts and other instances such as web addresses, spellings (proper nouns), etc.

    • The interviewer’s main job is to listen, not to talk.

  1. One-on-One: Never have a third party present

    • At the beginning of this article I mentioned renaming an audio file “Nearly Ruined Track.” This was a direct result of having third parties present. Unfortunately, these parties often became exuberant and talked over the interviewee. This was an unfortunate loss, and it was entirely my fault.

A tidy interview is the interviewer’s responsibility. Without utilizing the correct tools, putting the interviewee at ease, and collecting appropriate, relevant data, an interview becomes a quagmire of weeds. If the maturation of garden debris cannot be avoided and the interview does not turn out as expected, remember that composting for future success is a good idea.



Sunflower Footsteps is hosting a “Back-to-School Book Give Away

For details, visit:

Visit Sunflower Footsteps


Also, be sure to join me next week for “Seanachaí’s News.” In my monthly progress report I will make an important announcement about my forthcoming book,

Haunted Voices from My Past: True Narratives of an Ohio Family


As always, I love to hear from you. If you’re in the cyber-neigbourhood, drop me a line. In the meantime, keep writing, reading, and smiling. It’s contagious.


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