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Successful Interviewing Techniques
by Terrie I. Murray

Last year I was involved in a nine month "work for hire" project as a researcher. The bulk of my assignment was to interview 150 experienced backyard bird watchers and distill the interviews into information and quotes the author of the book could use for the final text. Even though my research was highly specialized, the tips and skills for interviewing are transferable to any genre of writing where you want to add personal experiences or quotes.

I was interviewing people all across the United States, and it was impractical for me to travel the country and do all of those interviews in person. Conducting the interviews by telephone, and recording them, was the best solution for me. I researched phone-recording equipment and settled for a good quality dictation-style recorder with an adapter that attached to the phone headset cord. Test your equipment by calling someone and recording a short conversation. If you choose to record your interviews, at the start of the interview you must inform your interviewee that you are recording and get their permission, on tape, to do so. This isn't just polite, it is imperative if there is any dispute later about what they said. Even if you are recording, take detailed notes. I learned this the hard way, when a good interview was essentially lost to me because I got caught up in the questions and responses, failed to take notes, and later discovered that my recorder did not pick up my interviewee's very quiet voice. Routinely check your equipment, especially if you are operating on batteries, and make sure to keep an eye on the end of the tape.

Contact your interviewees in advance, explain the purpose of the interview and the kind of information you're looking for, and then set up a time to call them and conduct the interview later. This gives them a chance to think about and prepare their responses. However, if you're doing investigative research and you particularly want candid responses, don't give your interviewee the questions in advance or you'll get a rehearsed interview.

Prepare a set of questions in advance which will cover the basics of the information you want to obtain from the interview. However, one of the things I learned early on is that it is dangerous to adhere too closely to the script. Pay attention to what your interviewee is saying, and ask follow up questions. Don't let your mind relax just because you have a script and you're recording the interview. Some of my most valuable interview material and quotes came from follow-up questions which led the interviewee off on interesting tangents. Resist the temptation to share your own stories with your interviewee, unless by doing so you think it might encourage them to go deeper with their responses.

Make sure that when you finish the interview you provide your interviewee with a way to contact you if they think of anything else after the interview is complete. I got great information e-mailed to me long after my interviews were done.

When you are interviewing a large group of people, use the answers you've already received to revise and improve your questions for the next interviews. I found that after the first 20 or so interviews a number of my questions were receiving the same answer, but for several others I had incomplete information. I took out the questions for which I already had enough material, expanded on those for which I needed more information, and, most importantly, added a couple of open-ended questions which allowed my interviewee to open up and just talk for a few minutes. There are only so many ways you can explain what types of bird seed you use in your feeders, but everyone had their own version of why they the go to the time and trouble to feed birds in the first place. Those were the questions which provided me with the most original material and the best quotes.

I did conduct several of my interviews by email, because the time schedules of my interviewees did not match the times I had available to interview them. I asked them the same questions, and I emailed some follow-up questions where that seemed appropriate. I got some good information from my email interviewees, but in general the email interviews lacked the spontaneity of the telephonic interviews.

Finally, it is wise to obtain a written release from anyone whom you plan to quote in print. Make sure that the release states that you have permission to use anything they tell you, but that you are not obligated to do so, and, further, that they consented to the interview without being promised anything in return. If you interview 150 people, as I did, you can't promise them each a free book. You can, however, promise to let them know when the book is being published and where it will be available for purchase.

Here's a sample release for your use:

Author Name

Author Address

Dear Author:

This letter will confirm that I have been interviewed, and/or will be interviewed, for your book tentatively entitled _________________________. I hereby grant you permission to use in any and all versions of this book in all languages (and in any portions of the book published in periodicals or other works): (a) my name and all or any portion(s) of my comments during such interview(s) and (b) any materials that I may provide to you. I understand that you may either use such materials in the form in which I have provided them to you or may have new versions prepared based upon what I have provided.

This permission is irrevocable and may not be modified or terminated without your written consent. This permission is granted in consideration of your willingness to consider my comments and/or materials for use in the book (but I understand that you are under no obligation to use any of them in the book). If this letter is signed by more than one individual, then each such individual joins in granting this permission.




Good luck, and happy writing!

© Copyright 2000, Terrie I. Murray

Terrie Murray is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in WildBird Magazine, The Northwest Birdwatcher, The National Homeschool Journal, Oregon Coast Magazine, The Warbler and the Oregon Birds Journal.

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