Interviews are something we’re all too familiar with here at ATC: they make up a huge portion of the audio we transcribe, and as such, we’ve become accustomed to the common forms, techniques, banalities, and yes––even the (occasional) blunders. While it’s only natural for every interview to have its highs and lows, we thought it may be useful to compile a short list of simple tips and tricks for conducting interviews that we’ve learned over our decades of work with oral historians, journalists, authors, and more. We certainly didn’t invent these principles, as we’re not the professionals in this field. Instead, these are the things we’ve gleaned from the experts that we feel are some of the cornerstones to a good interview––and we hope that those of you newer to interviewing get some use from them!
- Planning & The Goldilocks Principle
One of the most important strategies for conducting an effective interview is preparation. It’s vital to put some planning and forethought into the interview––from both the interviewer and the interviewee––so that both parties feel that they’ve had a chance to fairly represent themselves, had enough time to speak, and had the opportunity to put their best foot forward and relay their desired meanings. But be warned; there is such a thing as too much planning. While it’s common courtesy to provide your interviewee with a list of questions (or, at the least, important talking points) ahead of time, there’s no need to get too specific. Part of the magic of a good interview is the natural flow––and sometimes getting a little off-topic or telling an unplanned anecdote can end up provoking the most stimulating part of the conversation. To avoid stifling an engaging exchange, make sure to plan just enough, but don’t overdo it. Provide your subject with a list of topics or questions, but avoid steering their answers in a specific direction or leading the witness, or you may end up with pedestrian, run-of-the-mill answers that make for a boring interview.
- Guidance & Support
Another aspect of interviewing that often goes overlooked is the importance of support. When we transcribe an interview verbatim––meaning with every “um,” “ah,” “hm,” and false start included––one of the most notable elements of the finished transcript is the volume of verbal supportive cues given. While we as transcriptionists can’t observe the nonverbal encouragement that may be given by an interviewer (nodding, etc), we can observe the verbal ones, and we see firsthand the difference they make in the interviewing process. Though they may create more work for us as the transcriptionists, more verbal supporting cues (in the form of interjections) help interviewees respond better to questions––whether that means further elaboration of a previously expressed thought or the courage to tackle a difficult topic that perhaps they weren’t planning on getting into in depth. While it can seem repetitive to you as the interviewer, nodding along and offering small verbal interjections (“Ah,” “I see,” “Mm,” “Okay”) can really bolster the interviewee and make for a more comfortable rapport. Remember, though, if your recording contains a lot of supportive interjections, it can make transcription harder (particularly for AI), so look for a transcription service that can handle difficult audio––like us! And, to save yourself the trouble of worrying about verbal tics and cues while you’re trying to interview, request a modified verbatim transcript, where we transcribe all of the important content in the conversation and omit the verbal cues and stutters.
- Review, Review, Review
Our last tip may be one we have a vested interest in, but it’s no less important for it: reviewing your interview. Whether you’re going to have your interview transcribed or not, it’s important to review it either in audio or text form to give you the best understanding of the effectiveness of your questions, your tone, your supportive cues, minute details of wording, and more. We recommend reviewing your interview at least a full day after it has taken place, so you can have some cognitive distance from your perceived ideas about the conversation and analyze your questions and your interviewee’s responses more accurately. This review process helps you understand what led to the most groundbreaking moments in the interview, or, conversely, where something might have gone a little awry. As always, if you need a transcript of any interview with an unbeatable level of accuracy, well, you know where to find us!
While these three tips for conducting interviews may seem simple and self-explanatory on the surface, we’ve found that really honing on them results in better, more engaging interviews every time––as well as more interesting transcripts for us! Whether you’re conducting interviews for an oral history, a memoir, an academic purpose, or even an open role at your workplace, these three tips will help guide you towards your ideal interview––and we wish you the best of luck!