What to consider before the interview
Set goals for your project before you begin.
First: What are you trying to learn? Come up with a sentence or two that summarizes your research goals, so you can easily explain to your interviewees what you are researching and why it is important.
Second: What kinds of information already exist about your research topic and in what form?
- For example, if you wanted to do a biography of a politician, you could look at campaign literature, political documents, and other biographies that already exist — all the sources you could find that would tell you more about this person.
- If you were studying an event — for example, a strike in a factory — you could consult newspaper accounts, factory records, union records, and perhaps even economic data that would indicate the effects of the strike.
- If you were studying a family member, the data you consult may be in different forms — scrapbooks, photographs, family heirlooms, diaries, etc.
Third: You need to consider who you will need to interview to learn about your topic. Make a list of potential interviewees; this list will grow as you are referred to additional interviewees. It may not even be a list of names at first. For the factory strike, for example, your list might include strikers, factory managers, union representatives, police on the picket line, counter-demonstrators, etc.
Fourth: What product(s) do you want to create from this study, and who is the audience for the product(s)? The answer to these questions will help you decide what kinds of information you’ll need and in what medium to record it. For example, if you were planning to create a website, you would need to create digital audio or video files of your interviews. You would need digital scans of any photos or documents you wanted to upload as part of the history you are presenting. You would want to be sure that the people you interview know that their interview will be available to the whole world, and you will want to keep that in mind as you decide what to post on the website and what to leave out.
Prepare for each interview by knowing as much as you can about the person you'll be interviewing. Remember what information you want to gain from the interview and design a list of questions with that focus in mind. Remain open-minded, however; data can take you in new directions as the research and the interviews progress. If you are going to be interviewing someone about whom few or no written record exists, learn more about the times and circumstances of their lives. For example, if you were studying a woman who was an Army nurse in World War II, you might have access to some records of her service, but you should also learn about that time in history and the role of an Army nurse so your questions can better capture the history she lived. Such knowledge will also assist you in establishing rapport with the interviewee by laying a groundwork of shared knowledge and confirming your interest in him/her.
Set up the appointment for the interview, confirm the appointment, and keep the appointment. Arrange to conduct the interview in a place and time most comfortable for the interviewee, away from noise and distractions.
Buy the best recording equipment you can afford. Know your equipment thoroughly, be it audio or video, and make sure it is in working order before you arrive at the interview. Test it again on site with the interviewee and you both speaking on the recording to be sure you are both clearly audible. If you use batteries, carry extra. If your equipment is rechargeable, be sure it is fully charged. I recommend an external microphone that is stereo and omnidirectional in preference to the recorder's built-in microphone. Record at the highest quality level on your digital equipment — do not compress the files as you record. This means you need to have sufficient memory on your recorder for your needs. If your digital recording equipment (audio or video) has an earbud that allows you to hear the recording as it is being made, get accustomed to using it and wear it during the interview to be sure there is no audio dropout or microphone failure.
Prepare a list of questions for the interview.
You need not follow this list exactly; other questions will arise during the interview, but they will give a solid organization and cohesiveness to your interview. The list of questions also makes it easier to be sure you cover the same information with all your interviewees. Put the simplest questions, like biographical data, at the beginning, and the most complex or sensitive questions at the end. Group the questions logically, so you and your interview subject can easily follow the progression of ideas or chronology in the interview. If you are not sure of the wording of a question you constructed, try it out on another person. Another good way to check the focus of individual questions is to ask yourself, “What am I trying to learn with this question?”
Ask simply structured, single-topic questions.
Compound questions (strings of questions linked together with "and"), multiple rephrasing, and false starts are harder to answer and harder to transcribe. This is another good reason to prepare a list of questions in advance. Take your time. If you have more than one point to pursue on a given topic, compose follow-up questions. If a point that has not occurred to you in composing your questionnaire flies by during an interviewee's answer, you can always go back to it later in the interview. Keep a pen handy to jot down a word or two during the interviewee's response to remind yourself to follow up on that point when the interviewee finishes speaking.
Ask open-ended questions rather than questions answered by yes or no.
You want to encourage the fullest response possible to each question. Especially do not ask leading questions. You want people to feel free to tell their own stories and express their own opinions. For example, if you were interviewing a factory worker, you would not ask, "Don't you feel that management was hostile to your concerns?" but "What was the attitude of management to your concerns?"
Use concrete questions.
Questions should be not only open-ended but also concrete, avoiding as much as possible jargon or theoretical concepts (unless the jargon and concepts are part of the interviewee's experience). Remember that people's memories hang on substantial hooks. Asking for a description of a typical day or a family gathering or breaking a subject down into its component elements (for a study of a factory, for example, asking about coworkers, work processes, job training, etc.) will give the interviewee points of reference from which to reminisce.
Prepare the interviewee
Interviews are generally improved by sending the interviewee a list of your questions or a summary of the interview topics — in the latter case your summary should be written in neutral terms that will not prejudice the interviewee toward a certain perspective. The point is to give the interviewee time before the interview to think about people and events that may not have occurred to them in a long time. Be sure to explain that the questions or summary are only a framework, that other points may occur to both of you during the interview, and that any question the interviewee does not want to answer can be skipped.
Be aware of your personal appearance before you go to the interview. The tone you set nonverbally can be as important to the interview's success as what you say. Your attire tells the interviewee something about how you view them and the interview itself. Casual clothes can suggest a more informal atmosphere, but they can also suggest a lack of care or respect to some interviewees; businesslike clothes can suggest a more formal, purposeful atmosphere, but can intimidate some interviewees. Try to match your appearance to what will best put the interviewee at ease with you and the interview process.
Be aware that there can be subject areas or data out of your reach because of some inhibiting factor in your relationship with the interviewee: sex, age, class, etc. Be sensitive to these factors, and try to work past them, but do not alienate the interviewee by pressing too hard for information they do not want to share. The single best strategy for bridging these kinds of obstacles is for the interviewer to show respect and courtesy to the interviewee, and to make the interview itself a “safe place” where the interviewee feels heard and understood. Part of that atmosphere comes from the interviewee understanding the goals of the interview, their role in the research, their freedom to answer a question or not, and how the interview will be used. Part of that atmosphere comes from the interviewer being a friendly, non-judgmental, interested listener to the life experiences and opinions of the interviewee.
Unexpected barriers to full disclosure can also arise from your level of familiarity with the interviewee. Sharing a lot of history in common with the interviewee can be as challenging to work past as meeting the interviewee for the first time. This can be a particular challenge when interviewing family members. Things you both know can be taken for granted, and things taken for granted are generally unspoken. Try to stay alert for this kind of data, and do not be shy about stating what is (for both of you) obvious. Remember you are speaking for a third person, the audience for the interview or its product(s), who may not know either of you.
Know your ethical responsibilities as an interviewer. Be prepared to answer any questions the interviewee may have about the interview or the research project. The CDRP uses a narrator information sheet that explains the goals of the project, the interview process, and the rights and responsibilities of both parties, and includes contact information for our center. We send this to the interviewee before the interview.
We also use a copyright release form that grants permission to use the interview and has room on it for the interviewee to state any restrictions or conditions on the interview's use. Both interviewer and interviewee sign the copyright release form at the close of the interview. The interviewee can wait to sign the copyright release until after review of the recording or transcript. Be sure the interviewee reads and understands any forms you use before you begin the interview.Download our copyright release