Conducting Interviews

You can collect data by going to published material, by conducting empirical research, or by careful observation. However, you can also get information by talking with people who have knowledge you want. Sometimes you simply want to know what their experience has been; in other words, you want to collect their testimony as witnesses. Sometimes you want their expert opinion, sometimes their knowledge of the facts. One of the first steps in conducting an interview, after deciding who you want to interview, is to figure out which of these kinds of information you are after. Let's go through some of the steps involved in planning and carrying out an interview.
  1. After determining who you want to talk with, consider what information you want to get. It may even be a good idea to jot down a list starting with, "I want to find out . . . ."
  2. Make an appointment. Contact the person you wish to talk with far enough in advance that he or she has time to get ready, but not so far in advance that their schedules are not yet developed. When you make an appointment, you need to introduce yourself and tell what capacity you are calling in, explain the purpose of your call, explain why you would like to talk with the person, and request permission to set a time and place. If you will be recording the interview, ask permission to do so ahead of time.
  3. Prepare for the interview by finding out about the person you will be interviewing and by preparing questions to ask.
  4. If you want witness-type information, a few open-ended questions which invite the person to tell her story. Be ready with follow up questions like, "Could you tell me more about that?"
  5. If you want expert opinion, create more pointed questions, questions that suggest particular issues you would to explore. Questions still need to be open ended, something like, "I would very much like to know what your analysis is of so and so." Be willing to let the person drift off to a neighboring topic, because she may know more about the lay of the argument than you do, and she may be giving you information you really wanted and didn't know how to ask for. Reserve a very general question for the end, something like, "Have other things occurred to you during the interview that you would like to say at this time?"
  6. If you want facts, make your questions as precise as possible, making it clear that you're after data. It is important that the person you are interviewing know ahead of time that he or she will be asked such questions, because people seldom carry that kind of data around in their heads. Reserve a general question for the end.
  7. When it is time for the interview, be punctual--not early, and certainly not late.
  8. Be forthcoming when you meet, introducing yourself and briefly reminding the person why you wanted to talk. If you are unsure about how to spell the person's name, ask about that and about their official title.
  9. If you will be taping the interview, ask permission to do so.
  10. As you ask the questions and listen to the responses, look at the person's face and eyes to show that you are interested and that you value what you're getting. From time to time make brief notes, but don't bury yourself in notetaking.
  11. Try to get some direct quotes, saying something like, "I like the way you said that. Can I quote you?" And then get the words down in quotation marks.
  12. Reserve a general question for the end.
  13. Briefly summarize what you have covered and how you understand the information you have been given.
  14. Thank the person for his or her time and willingness to share.
  15. Don't linger. If you promised to take only 30 minutes, then stick to your schedule, but don't be rude. Say something like, "I promised to take only 30 minutes of your time, and I see I have. Is there any last thing you want to add before I go?" You might also say something like, "This has been very informative. If some other question occurs to me, may I get back in touch with you?"
  16. When you leave, spend time immediately writing down notes. Make sure you have the date and place of the interview.