Your Study Guides and Strategies starts here!

Knowledge is of two kinds.
We know a subject
ourselves, or we know
where we can find
information upon it.
Samuel Johnson 1709 - 1784
English author/lexicographer.

Cooperative learning series

Interviewing for class projects

Preparation: The more structure and preparation you demonstrate to the person you are interviewing, the better the interview will be.

The following are guidelines toward developing good interviews

  • Develop a statement of interest, including
    What you find interesting about the subject
    What you will be able to discover through the interview
    that you could not otherwise research
  • Research thoroughly whatever public knowledge
    you can find on the person, the project, the company, and/or events.
    The interview begins before you meet the person!
  • Prioritize a set of objectives and questions
    Going in prepared makes you look capable and competent
  • Discover what is necessary to fit into his/her environment/space;
    ask advice of others if necessary.

    Dress neatly and appropriately for the situation.
    Your objective is to make the interview subject feel comfortable,
    and willing to share what is important to them.
    Ask yourself: "How would I want to be treated if the roles were reversed?"
  • Develop a checklist of what "tools" are needed in the interview:
    notebook, pens, recording device, etc.
  • Arrange for the interview "on location" if possible and/or appropriate
    It will add to its sense of place, voice, and story

Before the interview:

  • Arrive early
    Avoid traffic, parking, getting lost problems
    Silently observe where your subject works if possible the office environment, working conditions, co-workers and staff, how he/she is dressed, etc.
    Don't be "nosey" but be alert!
    Don't interfere with on-going operations
  • If you tape record the interview
    Test your recorder, its tape and batteries before you start
    Get permission, in writing or on the tape: sample form (.pdf)
    While recording, continue to take notes, especially key points to be safe

Introductions (a "few" minutes)

  • Introduce yourself and your project
  • Ask for the person's name, title, business card,
    photograph or digital image, company logo, etc. as appropriate
  • Try to make the person you interview
    (and yourself!) comfortable. Some casual conversation is appropriate as ice-breaker: express your appreciation for their time and willingness.
    Compliment their office, directions, your respect for their achievements, etc.
  • If this is your first interview,
    share that you are developing your interviewing technique
  • If you know the person from before,
    keep in mind that your project may require that you be impartial or neutral to that person's experience. Make no assumptions!
  • Offer a consent form sample form (.pdf)
  • Introductory questions
    • Be complimentary to set the tone
    • Demonstrate your interest and preparation
    • Verify a few known selected facts, sequences, etc.

      (I read your biography and saw your degrees are in....
      (The newspaper reported that your neighborhood has succeeded in...
      (In your company's annual report, I read that the most successful product line is...
      (What prepared you for your success in...
      (How did you become interested in....)
      (I read that you started out as a chemist, and developed yourself to become....
      (What books or people most influenced your....
      (I see that your position is responsible for....
      (Who were your important role models or teachers for....
      (What was the consequence of....)

The Interview

  • Treat the interview like a conversation with structure!
    Begin with your list of questions
    Follow chance openings
    Keep in mind your objectives
  • Actively listen to understand and report
    Affirm that you understand what they are saying
    Do not agree or disagree with the person
    Do not debate what they have to say
  • While taking notes,
    don't hesitate to ask for clarifications or better understanding:

    "Could you repeat that, please? I want to make sure I get all of that down."
    "I am not sure I followed that, do you mean that...."

  • Know when to shut up
    Listen carefully so that you know when to let your source pause to collect his or her thoughts. Don't feel the need to fill every empty space with conversation
  • Don't be afraid to say you don't understand,
    or need more explanation.
    Use your own words to repeat back; ask:
    "So what you're saying is ..." or "So let me get this straight..."
  • Be willing at all times to be surprised; follow chance openings
    Don't think you know what the story is about.
    Don't let your own feelings or bias shape the questions you ask

Follow the order and priority of your questions

  • Transitions: be aware of time constraints and your purpose:
    look for a convenient jumping off point to engage the subject
  • Develop more depth/complexity as the interview develops
    given the comfort level and opportunity
  • Avoid yes/no questions
    Ask some questions that can be only answered with a story
    This reinforces your interest in not only getting "facts" but also the role your subject has played. It lends voice to the narrative, and can personalize the story for your readers.
  • Don't accuse (Why DID you ....?"),
    rather ask if the person would like to respond to accusations,
    or tell their side of a story, or...
  • Develop scenes and themes during the interview

    (It sounds like .... is very important to you, what/how/... has it affected...
    (What was most significant in....
    (What difficulties or challenges were most important...
    (How did you react to....
    (How do you see your role in changing....
    (At what point did you know you wanted to.... How did you meet this challenge or change?
    (What do you see as your current/next challenge...
    (In the ...., I read that you said ".........", can you provide more detail?
    (How do you keep track of ....
    (Some people say that ...., but you seem to take another path.
    Can you explain the difference?)

Transition to conclusion

  • Keep aware of the time, and all the topics you need to cover
  • Ask if there are additional points that have not been addressed
  • Summarize a few important points to verify if you understand correctly
  • Ask for references for additional information,
    sources for data, or advice for further development

Conclusion

  • Review your timeline toward completing your project
  • Volunteer to provide a copy
    of your completed report, article, or a summary of the presentation,
    including any reactions to the interviewee
  • Express sincere appreciation

Writing an interview essay:

  • Immediately after leaving the interview:
    • Organize your notes
    • Label and date notes and tapes for easy reference
    • Transcribe the audio recording, or important sequences and quotes
  • Set your notes aside for a day or two to get a fresh perspective
  • Re-read the assignment!
    What specifically is the focus of the assignment?
  • Review the entire interview's notes and recording
    Note from three to five major themes,
    and compare these with the assignment's objectives
    (You are now re-structuring the interview from its "narrative" sequence
    to one of themes)
  • For each significant theme, find an appropriate quote
    and cut and paste these into their categories
  • Follow the structure of any writing assignment
    Refer to our guides on Writing Assignments
  • After completing the substance of the interview,
    develop an introduction (remember your initial observations?) and conclusion.
  • Follow guidelines on
    proofreading, verifying with and citing your source(s), and spell checking
  • If appropriate, with advice from your teacher,
    send a copy to your interviewed subject with appreciation inviting feedback.

Types of interviews:

  • Celebrity and newsmaker
    Understanding who stands behind success or notoriety
  • Professional profiles
    Understanding professions, careers, companies, institutions
  • Project profiles
    Developing a project history from inspiration (to conclusion) and consequences
  • Oral history
    Learning about past events and experiences
  • Employment
    Developing your interviewing skills will also help you when you are,
    in turn, interviewed
  • Person-on-the-street interviews

Be brief and friendly, yet businesslike.
Don't walk up to people with a "sorry to bother you" attitude.
Develop a professional manner and act the part:

  • Identify yourself and explain what you're doing.
  • Request permission to ask a few questions
  • Ask for the person's name and where they're from:
    Verify names -- especially spellings
  • Be brief and look for follow-up possibilities
  • Save tougher questions for near the end of the interview
  • Thank the person -- remember that anyone who consents to an interview is doing you a favor, whether they are getting anything out of it or not
  • If the story is being published,
    let the person know where and what your name is again
  • No matter how rude someone is to you, be polite. Be businesslike.
    Remind the person you've approached why you're there and, if you can, repeat your question. If the situation doesn't improve, walk away. And don't take it personally.

Classroom learning series

Preparing for the classroom | Class "prep"/paying attention |
Classroom discussions | Taking notes in lectures | Influencing teachers |
Interviewing for class projects | Consent form for interviews |
Problem based learning | Using guided notes

This Guide and on-the-street interviews are based with permission upon Leslie Rubinkowski's tips presented as a visiting faculty member during the "News Reporting and Writing Fellowship for College Graduates" at The Poynter Institute, Summer 2002.