Conducting Interviews: Directing And Capturing The Conversation

conducting interviews

When conducting interviews as research for your book, make them as efficient, effective, and fun as possible.

In “Conducting Interviews For Research: Identifying And Contacting Expert Sources,” I wrote about the strategy and mechanics of nailing down interviews with experts, all in service of researching your next big writing project. But what do you do once you’re face to face or on the phone with your interviewee? Here are some tips, from technical to interpersonal, to help you get the information you need and have fun in the process.

Record, record, record

For the vast majority of interviews I conduct, I record the conversation rather than rely on handwritten or typed notes. I do this primarily to ensure accuracy, but also because I notice interesting things on playback that I may have glossed over during the initial conversation.

If you plan on recording an interview, whether in person or on the phone, be sure to ask permission and receive consent. It sometimes helps to assure your interviewee that the recordings are just for you as reference and will not be posted or shared with anyone.

A mentor of mine told me a story about how he had the opportunity to interview a world-famous rock band and arrived at the interview with no fewer than four tape recorders (this was before the age of iPhones). As the interview went on, one by one and for reasons unknown, three of the tape recorders failed. Luckily, the last one held out to the bitter end and he was able to complete the interview successfully.

The moral? Things break, often at the worst possible moments, so bring at least two recording devices and record with both at all times. If one fails unexpectedly in the middle of a fascinating conversation and you don’t want to interrupt to reboot your system or find a place to plug in your phone, at least you know you’re covered. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak with amazing interviewees — like in my mentor’s situation — then more than two recording devices is a good idea.

Regardless of whether you’re bringing two devices or 20, test them all beforehand, check that you have plenty of storage space, and make sure all batteries are fully charged. The fewer unexpected technical surprises you have to deal with mid-conversation the better.

Prepare your questions — but go with the flow

Nobody wants to feel like their time is being wasted, so make sure to brush up on at least the basics of your interviewee before your conversation. What is his or her position and the nature of work? What is his or her background? How does that experience apply to what you’re trying to write about? What are the key takeaways that you want to have nailed down by the time you turn off your recorders? The more you can learn about your interviewee ahead of time, looking at it all through the lens of your writing project, the more efficient and productive your conversation will be.

I often go into interviews with a list of at least ten questions written in my notes, some very specific, some more open-ended. I try to avoid asking questions that the interviewee has likely answered before, as well as questions that could be seen as aggressive, and try to ask questions that will catalyze a positive conversation on topics of interest.

That said, there have been interviews where the conversation has been so natural, spontaneous, and unexpected, that I get all of the information I need — and then some — without ever having to look at my notes or questions. Be ready to go with the flow and follow the conversation wherever it takes you, but don’t lose sight of the reason you’re speaking to the interviewee in the first place.

Keep your questions short and get out of the way

I’ve seen plenty of amateur interviewers do the opposite of this and it’s not a good thing. They begin asking a question and end up speaking non-stop for minutes on end, perhaps wrapped up in the excitement of the interview or subconsciously trying to impress the interviewee. Meanwhile, the interviewee leans forward and opens his or her mouth, trying awkwardly to find an opening in which to respond. Watch closely in a situation like this and you can see the frustration mount in the interviewee’s face. After all, he or she is there to share wisdom and knowledge, not to listen to a soliloquy from a writer he or she has never met before and likely never heard of.

Keep your questions short, a couple of sentences at most, and then let the interviewer respond. Stay quiet until you are sure that he or she is done. If you have follow-up questions or reactions that you want to share, take notes and return to them later in the conversation.

Be proactive with ramblers

Sometimes you’ll encounter interviewees who start talking and do not want to stop. Sometimes this is great — I’ve had interviews where I literally ask one question and the interviewee does the rest for me. The problem comes when interviewees take the lead and go in directions that are not helpful for you as a writer. At that point, you need to take control and gently redirect the conversation to cover the info you are after.

I’ve found that the best way to do this is wait for as close to a break in the action as you can get, whether it’s the completion of a single thought, a stop for a drink of water, or even a breath. Interjecting with something authoritative but affirmative can often do the trick. “This is all great information. There are just a few other topics that I want to be sure to get to before our time is up.” Remember, this is your interview for your writing project. Avoid cutting in and cutting off if you can, but don’t be afraid to lead the conversation where you need it to go if you have to.

Respect your interviewee’s time

Before you begin speaking, make sure you know how long you have with your interviewee and try to adhere to that limit. Doing so helps ensure you get all of your questions answered before your conversation partner has to run off to another commitment. It also helps keep the conversation on target.

It never hurts to check in, close to the pre-ordained ending point, and ask, “How are you doing on time?” Make sure to leave this until close to the end, and after you have your core questions answered, as the question can signal that the final act of the interview has begun.

When I ask this, I usually get either the response of, “I have time for one or two more questions” or “We’re good. Let’s keep going until you have what you need.” Either way, proceed accordingly. The point here is to show respect for your interviewee’s time, make sure that you get what you need within the time given, and wrap things up organically at the end of the discussion.

Enjoy the conversation

My best interviews aren’t really interviews at all. They turn into two people having an interesting discussion about a topic they both find fascinating. There’s no interviewer/interviewee designation, just interested parties geeking out. It’s unrealistic to expect this level of flow and rapport from every single interview, but it’s something to strive for and cherish when you do manage to get there.

Say thank you

Thank your interviewee both in person and in a follow-up note. He or she may want to stay in touch, be on your mailing list, request a thank you in the published book, or at least read the thing when it’s written and published. Regardless, it never hurts to maintain a positive relationship with those who are kind enough to share their time and expertise with you.


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