After you have sufficiently prepared for the interview, it’s time to conduct it. Keep the following in mind while you’re at the interview.
Tips to remember during the interview
Separate vs. group interviews
It is best to have a one-on-one interview so that the interviewee's attention is focused on you and yours on them. If you cannot avoid it, or choose to interview a couple or a group, be sure to identify on the recording all the people who take part in the interview. Note: You need signed forms from each substantive participant in the interview. For people who may wander in once you have begun, use your judgment on getting signed forms depending on the person's contribution to the interview. If you interview more than one person — a married couple, for example — often one is the conversation leader and one is quieter. It is up to you as the interviewer to be sure that both people have the opportunity to answer the questions fully and without interruption or contradiction (which is why it is generally easier to do each person’s interview separately).
Let the interviewee suggest the interview location, whether that is their home, office, or another location. Make sure the place chosen is quiet and away from outside distractions. Background noise can destroy an interview by making the recording unintelligible. Traffic, air conditioners, office noises, clock chimes, ringing telephones, etc. should be avoided if possible. It is important to examine the area around you before you begin the interview and choose the quietest location you have available to you. You may only have this one chance to get a clean recording.
Place the audio recorder and microphone between you and your subject on a solid surface (or attach the microphone to them if it is the clip-on type). Do not hold the microphone or the recorder in your hand. Be aware that moving objects on the table, shuffling papers, or fidgeting (if the microphone is on the person) can cause noises that obscure the conversation. Know your microphone’s strengths and weaknesses so you can plan around these kinds of disruptions as you set up the equipment. Always test your recorder on-site. If you are using a video recorder, decide if you want yourself to appear on the recording, or if you will be speaking off camera. Test the video on-site. You want to be sure the image is well-lit, and the audio is clear. Set the camera so that if the interviewee leans or changes position, he/she won't be cut off or out of frame.
Some people are nervous about being recorded, and some people who might allow an audio recording might balk at a video recording. Be sure the interviewee understands before the meeting that you wish to record the interview and in what format. If they do not want to be videotaped, for example, but you are working on a video project, one possible compromise is an audio recording and a photo of the interviewee. Let your interviewee hear or see the playback when you test the equipment. Never start recording until the interviewee is ready to begin, and never record without that person’s knowledge.
Start your recorded interview with a statement of the names of yourself and your interviewee(s), the date, and the location. This is very helpful when you have multiple recordings to sort through later. Then begin by collecting simple biographical information from the interviewee, such as full name, date of birth, and place of birth (which should also be at the beginning of your questionnaire). This helps put the interviewee at ease and gets the basic information about your subject up front in the interview.
Once the recorder is running, focus on the interviewee and give the machine only the minimum attention necessary to be sure it is recording smoothly. This will also help the interviewee focus on you instead of the machine.
Do not pause the recording during an interview unless the interviewee asks you to or the interviewee is called away (by a phone call, for example). The only other time to turn off the recorder would be if the interviewee becomes upset (for example, becomes tearful remembering the death of a close family member) and needs a moment to regain composure. Tell the interviewee you are pausing the recorder and tell them when you start it again. It is your responsibility to monitor the well-being of your interviewee.
If you are doing a long interview, creating regular breaks gives you time to review your list of questions as well as a chance for your interview subject (and you) to stretch or get a drink. This alleviates fatigue and is beneficial to both of you. Be sure to turn the equipment on again when the interviewee is ready to resume talking on the record.
Speak at a sedate pace and speak clearly. The tone you set will generally be echoed by the interviewee.
After you ask a question, stop ... and wait for the answer, even if you have to sit in silence for several seconds. Subjects often need several moments to think about the questions you ask. Give them quiet time; do not feel you need to respond immediately with a rephrased or a different question. The silence is not as long as it feels!
Once the answer comes, do not cut off or talk over an interviewee. Some people like to go on and on, but let them talk to the end of their strand of thought and wait patiently for an opening. Cutting them off gives the impression that what they are saying isn't important to you, or that you are hurrying through the interview.
Verify verbally when people make gestures or point out something. The audio recorder cannot see. This won't be as much of an issue if you are videotaping the interview unless they refer to something out of frame. For example: "The fish was this big." Interviewer: "About 18 inches." Or "The bandstand was over there." Interviewer: "Across the street by the pond."
Keep alert for cues from the interviewee that they will expand on a topic you bring up provided you let them know you want to hear it. For example, if an interviewee says, "Oh, that wasn't much of a problem, although I can think of several times where it was," it is a cue to say, "Would you like to tell me about those times?" This not only shows you are listening and enhances rapport with the interviewee; it can also give you good material the interviewee would not volunteer otherwise.
By the same token, keep alert for clues that the interviewee is uncomfortable with a question or line of questioning. This is more often clued in by body language than verbally, although some interviewees will not hesitate to tell you how they feel about a question! Remember you can prevent this rapport-damaging eventuality by letting the interviewee know before the interview begins that they have the right at any time to refuse to answer a question.
Be alert to your own responses to an interviewee's remarks, taking care not to sound judgmental, impatient, or disrespectful. An interview is not the place to show off how much you know or to take issue with an interviewee's memories, beliefs, or opinions. It is not about you!
Remember: You are that “safe place” in which the interviewee can be heard and understood. Treat all interviewees with unfailing courtesy, respect, and gratitude for the privilege of sharing a part of their lives with you. Even if you come away with nothing that you feel is of material benefit to your project, you can consider any interview a success if you have maintained a positive, polite, professional stance throughout the interview.
Fatigue is the last element of interviewee behavior to keep an eye on, especially with older subjects. Interviewing is a tiring process. It is emotionally and intellectually challenging for both you and the interviewee. If the person is showing signs of weariness, it is better to adjourn and take up the interview another time than to press on with an interviewee who is too tired to think clearly any longer but too polite to tell you enough is enough. You can always reschedule and continue the interview at another time.