I was fascinated to see todays Writing 201 Topic which talks about the use of an interview as a means to provide both information and inspiration for your blogging. Of course this writing 201 class is specifically for a particular type of writing – Longform writing.
Now I know a thing or two about conducting interviews so I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with my classmates. To provide a little context, I recently retired from a UK Police Force and whilst I was serving I developed an expertise in interview skills, in fact I spent many years teaching interview skills to Police Officers. Over the course of my career I conducted thousands of interviews with witnesses, criminals and victims of crime. Many of those victims were subject of horrific crimes and needed support whilst it was imperative to get accurate and in depth information from them. Hopefully you won’t have to interview anyone in traumatic circumstances.
Now Mark Armstrong is totally correct when he points out that the best interviews are conversations. I would take that principle just one stage further and say that the best interviews are a ‘managed conversation’, with you as the manager. For the sake of this article I am assuming that you are going to be interviewing someone who is willing to be interviewed. If you are looking for blogging information it is unlikely that you will be dealing with a hostile interviewee. Many of the principles I am going to outline for you can be used in a variety of situations, (e-mail interviews etc) but I will outline the principles based on the assumption that you are conducting your interview face to face.
To help you to conduct an effective managed conversation I am going to introduce you to a model devised by Professor Eric Shepherd in 1983. The model is designed to offer the best chance of spontaneous information disclosure. Conversation Management is a tool that is applicable to any investigative interviewing context. It combines empirical research findings in cognitive and social psychology and sociolinguistics, with research into reflective practice, skilled practitioner performance, counselling psychology and psychotherapy practice (see http://www.forensicsolutions.co.uk/CM.htm) for a more in depth explanation. The overriding principle is that the method is used ethically as an information gathering tool. In order to help you to use the model effectively I will explain the stages of the model.
Before I explain how the model works a word about questioning. How you use questions will have a huge effect on how smoothly the interview goes. If you remember nothing else from this post then remember this! Open questions are your friend. Put simply open questions are those that encourage an interviewee to talk and disclose information. By contrast ‘closed questions’ are those that lead the interviewee to a one word answer, typically ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. To help you to remember what open questions look like I will refer you to some lines from Rudyard Kipling who said “I KEEP six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who. Questions that are ‘closed are typically things like ‘Did you…’, ‘Could you’, ‘Would you’ etc. As a rule of thumb the interviewee should be doing 80% of the talking during the interview. Your job is to listen and you must listen actively.
Planning and Preparation
I cannot over emphasise the importance of this stage. If you go into an interview without a plan it is a near certainty that it will fail. Even if you manage to muddle through the interview without making a total fool of your self you will definitely miss important information and you will probably not manage to get all of the information you need. You most definitely do not want to have to go back to an interviewee because you forgot to ask an important question.
Start by conducting some research, find out as much as you can before you go to the interview, you don’t want to waste time exploring information that is freely available elsewhere. Use the background information to outline a number of topics you want to discuss. These do not have to be framed as questions but should be identified in advance and written down. As an example if I were interviewing a musician I would always have some topics preplanned. These might be: Influences, instruments, latest recording, latest tour, future plans, band mates, family, how do you relax and so on. These topics would provide what I call ‘my agenda’. You should remember that the interviewee will also have their own agenda and you need to give them the opportunity to cover it during the interview, it will contain information that is important to them.
Write your plan down and take it to the interview with you. I typically need no more than a list of bullet points identifying the topics on my agenda. You should ensure that you have everything you need before you sit down, pens, paper, a tape recorder, spare tapes, spare batteries, perhaps a drink if it is likely to be a long interview. It may sound silly but use the bathroom before you start.
If you remember nothing else from this section remember this! Know what you first question is going to be!
Introduce yourself, be relaxed and encourage the interviewee to relax. If you are going to record the interview ensure the interviewee is happy with that and explain that you will take notes as the interview progresses.
Once you are both settled you can begin the interview. Your opening question should aim to get the interviewee talking freely. To achieve this I often use what I term an instruction. Using my musician example again I might say something like, “Tell me about your new album”. This should encourage a volunteering of information. Whilst the interviewee is talking I would be jotting down key words or topics that I want to explore in more depth. You should look to see where the topics identified are the same as your own. Where they match you are onto a winner, these are the topics that you should start with. As the interviewee is talking encourage them to continue by making eye contact, nodding making encouraging noises or saying ‘Go on’ or ‘tell me more about that’.
When the interviewee has finished talking summarise what they said and finish your summary by linking to the next topic.
We now move into the main part of the interview by selecting a topic to discuss in more detail. Start by asking an open question about the topic and let the subject talk. When they have finished ask some more probing questions, clear up any ambiguities and clarify your understanding. When the topic is exhausted, summarise and move to the next topic.
A little word of warning, if a subject provides information that you know or believe to be untrue do not challenge it, just make a note and let it go for now. If you challenge their account they may feel threatened and clam up.
Work your way through all of the topics you have identified in this way until they are all exhausted.
When all of the topics are exhausted wrap the interview up by summarising and agreeing what you have discussed. Now is the time to challenge any inconsistencies, falsehoods or misunderstandings. At this stage it won’t matter too much if the interviewee clams up and you can always just point out the inconsistencies in your article.
Having completed the interview and before you write up your article you need to review the interview. Ask yourself if you covered everything you needed to. If you didn’t is the commission important enough to need another interview or a follow up question. In many cases omissions will be minor and can either be left or dealt with by a follow up e-mail.
You should also reflect on how the interview worked, what went well, what didn’t go so well, what can you improve on next time. When you are listening to the tape (if you made one), check out how your questions worked, was your linking between topics smooth, did you bluster, what questions worked and which didn’t?
You are now ready to write your article. Make sure you accurately reflect what the interviewee said even if you don’t agree with them. By all means offer an opinion but ensure that you identify the opinion as your own, don’t twist the interviewee’s words to suit your own purposes.
I accept that taking this approach may seem very structured and perhaps time consuming. To be honest it really isn’t. Once you get your head around how it works it doesn’t have to take long, it becomes an automatic process and with the exception of a few minutes spent planning it need not take any longer than any other interview. If you can gain a bit of proficiency with this approach it will save you a huge amount of time in the longer term.
If you are confused by any of the information provided or have any questions then please leave a comment and I will try to clear up any ambiguity. Take care and happy blogging.