Category Archives: Writing

Conversation Management – Writing 201

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!

Opening Exchanges

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.

Topics

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.

Summing Up

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.

Review

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?

Writing

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.

This weeks writing Challenge; Digging for Roots

100 years ago J B Woodburn said of the ‘Ulsterman’:  “He is determined to the verge of stubbornness and will accept no compromise; stern, dogged, and strong of purpose; independent, self-contained, and self-reliant, able to stand up on his own feet, and intensely proud of the fact. He has the passion, alertness and quickness of the Celt in addition to the adventurous spirit of the Norseman. He is steadfast and industrious beyond most races. In his uncultivated state he is blunt of speech and intolerant of shams, and lacks the attractiveness of manner of the Southerner”.

I think that this describes the Ulsterman and indeed myself perfectly, I would add a few observations of my own.  The Ulsterman is sometimes scathing, dryly humorous and rarely suffers fools at all (never mind gladly).  Again I would include these traits in my own ‘pen picture’.  Sadly there are a couple of other common traits that I (thankfully) do not share.  The Ulsterman has a view of gender roles that borders on Misogamy and all too often carries an overt religious and racial prejudice that borders on sectarianism and frequently spills over into violence and murder.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s was challenging, sectarianism had spilt over into terrorism and the Army was on the street.  In some ways life continued as normal but security checkpoints, being body searched going into shops and seeing armed soldiers on the street was a part of daily life.  As terrorism took hold both sides of the community retreated deeper into their Loyalist or Republican enclaves and distrust grew creating a king of religious apartheid.  I come from a large family, my father was one of eleven, my mother one of six.  When we were all together the atmosphere was raucous and making fun of each other was the norm.  If you showed any weakness you would be pulled to pieces, it sounds brutal and it often was.  It was rarely malicious, it was meant in fun, but being the butt of other peoples ‘fun’ can still hurt and be damaging.  Over time you learn to hide your emotions, to build walls.  I believe that developing this trait is directly responsible for my being a depressive later in life.  I learned to bury my emotions, to keep them in until the dam burst at the expense of my mental health.

At around the age of 9 my family moved from Belfast to a small seaside village some 20 miles away. it was a pretty idillic environment, beautiful beaches, open countryside and the freedom to roam.  We  were often outdoors from early morning to late evening and we spent our time outdoors, swimming, climbing trees, building dens and hanging out with our friends.  I have no doubt that this environment led directly to my love of nature and the outdoors, I am never so happy as when I am out walking and enjoying the countryside.

At 16 I left home and travelled to the South of England to join the Navy.  It separated me from my family and friends, and in the days before air travel, mobile phones and e-mail it was very difficult  to maintain contact with those back home.  Joining the services exposed me to a whole new way of life and to people from different backgrounds.  It was immediately apparent to me that I did not care what religion or social background people came from, if they were open and friendly that was good enough for me.  These changes undoubtably led to my abhorrence of prejudice, discrimination and inequality in all its forms.

Growing up I detested school, I had always been a bright kid but looking back in hindsight I can now see how bad the teaching was at my school.  In the late 1980’s I decided that I wanted to improve my education and took a degree course with the Open University.  I was hooked. I immediately developed a love of independent learning, I developed a more questioning mind and learned never to take things at face value.  I learned a lot more about politics and economics and how the less well off in society are often demonised by the law, the media and the ruling classes.  This, without doubt, deepened my understanding of social issues and my belief that it must be possible to improve social mobility through education and welfare support.   It strengthened my beliefs that a fairer and more equal society is not just desirable, it is imperative.

Obviously as I matured, married, had children and faced all of the challenges that life sends our way, I have had many more experiences that have changed my life, my thinking and my health, but I think those are stories for another day.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Grateful and Guilty.”

Anyone who has ever read my blog will know that music is a huge part of my life, it cheers me, moves me, touches me and lifts me up.  Put simply music is a huge part of my life.  After my family, my friends and my dogs it is probably the most important part of my life.

I don’t feel guilty about it, I celebrate it.  When the music I love isn’t popular I don’t see that as a guilty pleasure, I see it as a reason for celebration especially if I can share my love of that piece of music with others.

I love all sorts of music, Rock, Punk, Folk, Singer Songwriter, Reggae, Ska, blues, Jazz even classical.  I am not a big fan of what young people call R n B or most rap music, I am not keen on mainstream pop music either but I am proud to stand up and shout from the rooftops “Music I Love You!”

The Snow Storms in the USA – It’s not me, its you.

I am saddened today to see that at least eight people have lost their lives in the amazing snow storms that have hit the USA.  It is truly a tragedy how mother nature can cause so much devastation when she flexes her muscles like this.

That said today on the UK television news I saw this picture;

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Now seriously, most of the state has been hit by up to 6 feet of snow.  Please give me a clue, why are you trying to dig out your car?  Just where exactly is it that you think you are going to go?  Most of the roads look something like this.

snow-storms-wrecks-whole-of-us-states-in-cold-weather-e1416401084804

Now seriously just what are you trying to achieve?  Spare a thought for the emergency workers who will be trying to reach people in need, the elderly, the infirm and those at risk.  Maybe you should go check on your neighbours, see that they are OK, help them out.  Forget about your damn car until the thaw sets in.  One of us is a candidate for a Darwin award, and guess what?  It ain’t me!

Weekly Writing Challenge – Overheard – Kindness abounds

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Overheard.”

Well what a strange thing life can be.  Many of my regular readers will be aware that I spend as much time as possible attending music festivals.  In August this year I made my regular pilgrimage to the Beautiful Days festival in Devon.  This is a mid sized festival which doesn’t advertise or have sponsorship, it stays a little under the radar but sells out every year because it has a loyal following.  The festival is organised by the Folk-Punk-Rock band the Levellers.

After I left for home this year there was a terrible accident on the site when a mobile crane collapsed and two people were very seriously injured.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that their lives were saved because the Air Ambulance managed to get them to hospital very quickly.  There is a Facebook group called Beautiful Days chat which has almost 3000 members.  In recent days one of the organisers of that group, a good friend, has been carrying out some secret negotiations which came out of the terrible accident.

He has arranged for a host of bands and artists to record a cover of a levellers track which will be made into a download album and all of the proceeds will be donated to the air ambulance.  Many of our favourite bands are contributing.  All of this was done in secret and no-one had the slightest idea that this was happening until an announcement was made last night.  Needless to say the idea has gone down a storm with numerous people agreeing to buy the download.

This was a wonderful secret to be party to.  It really does restore your faith in human nature to see the support my friend has received from all of the artists.  Heaven knows it is difficult for artists to make a living.  Its heartening to see how much support the project has received from those pledging to buy the album.  It is heartening that this is all being done in the name of two people who were hurt in an accident and whom only a few of the group actually know.

It is a shame however that all of this is necessary because Air Ambulances in the UK would not be able to operate without charitable support.

Daily prompt – Good Tidings

For todays Daily prompt I get to go back in time to meet myself for a coffee (or a beer) to discuss the most rewarding, the most challenging things I have to look forward to.

Ten years ago I was recovering from my first major bout of depression.  I had fought my way back to work and really didn’t know where my career was heading.  I would want to give myself one piece of advice because that piece of advice has a major bearing on all three of the things listed above.  The advice is very simple and something I would ask everyone to keep to the forefront of their minds as the travel through life.

Trust your instincts!

Sounds easy doesn’t it?  Let me tell you a little of my tale.  As I was returning to work after a bout of depression I was asked to take on a project introducing a competency framework into my workplace.  This was an attempt to reduce every role in the organisation to a set of core competencies that people would be assessed against.  Now to be fair it sounded pretty dull and I suspected I would meet a lot of resistance, especially at senior levels in the organisation.  However my gut said this would be a good opportunity.  I went for it.  It was fairly dull, but it wasn’t overly challenging as I was already a qualified assessor for National Vocational Qualifications and this was essentially the same thing.  The good thing was that I was largely left alone to get on with it, no deadlines, very little pressure.

After a year or so of fairly dull endeavour I was asked to take on a much larger but related project.  I knew this was going to be more pressured and that I would now be supervising a project team.  I knew it would be a challenge but it felt right so again I accepted.  It meant 18 months of frantic hard work, but it was the most rewarding period of my whole career.  I was able to surround myself with keen, eager, ‘can do’ people.  I frequently had to work very long hours and I guess my health suffered a little but I enjoyed every single day.  Over 18 months my team and I scoped, designed and brought into existence a training programme that would be undergone by every member of the organisation.  The programme was nationally accredited by the UK government and the team won numerous national and local awards.  I was then asked to manage the programme, again it felt right.  I recruited and trained a new team to deliver the programme, again I was surrounded by keen, positive and willing staff.  Every single day was a joy.

I was then asked to take on a new job, a promotion, more money, more responsibility and very exciting.  The problem was I didn’t want to leave what I had built.  The teams I was now being asked to lead ad a reputation for being negative and difficult.  It felt wrong but I decided to go for it anyway.  To be honest I put the money ahead of job satisfaction and I paid for it.

I was now surrounded by nasty, negative, underhand people and every day was a misery.  I trusted people even when it felt wrong.  I put my credibility on the line to protect people I knew deep down were not deserving of my support.  In the end it broke me, ruined my health and took me into the darkest times of my life and eventually lead to early retirement through ill health.  I am still recovering.

Those instincts also told me that music was my salvation and that it would lead to some of the happiest times of my life.  My attendance at music festivals over the years has lead to my making a whole new circle of friends.  Friends who caring, giving, generous and fun.  People who expect nothing from you but your friendship, people that you instinctively know you can trust, who share your values and just want to have a good time.  That piece of advice may be simple but it is rarely wrong.  Trust your instincts, they rarely let you down.