Share this article on Facebook
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
Here's a sample release for your use:
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
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.
Other articles by Terrie I. Murray :
Check out the latest articles in
How to Promote Your Book BLOG
Find out what works.
Join the Writing for DOLLARS! group on Facebook.
Writing for DOLLARS!
is a publication of