Henry Peck’s advice for conducting interviews

Advice for Conducting Interviews

These tips are meant for conversational style interview research, rather than a survey method.


Starting out:

1)    Approach many, then be discerning. Contact as many people as you can find in relation to your research. Think of institutions that may have relevant departments, local entities that relate to your work, and any other entries to your topic. Once you have established contacts with a few people, ask them whom else they would recommend interviewing. If you request recommendations for other voices of note, respondents will give you a deeper interview field. You will not interview all of them – some will be unable to participate in your study, others may not get back to you. Later on, as your research becomes more directed, you can be judicious about the range of your interviewees.

2)    Ask for heroes and villains. When you ask interviewees who else they would recommend for inclusion in your research, they may give you the names of favorable colleagues and like-minded peers. Ask who might disagree with their perspective (“Not that I would dream of endorsing another point of view, of course, but because I’m curious about the spectrum of views on a topic”). If you get this right, without being combative, you’ll gain a more rounded group of interviewees.

3)    Consider your association. Depending on your circumstances, referencing Brown University or the Global Conversation in contact emails can help to validate your work. (Academic credentials may be better received than governmental or journalistic research motives). In certain cases, your association with an American institution may deter potential interviewees, or impact their responses to your questions. You must provide full disclosure if requested, but gauge your context and adjust how much information you lead with accordingly. (And of course, be sensitive to cultural circumstance). Business cards can be tremendously useful.



4)    Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before each interview, prepare yourself thoroughly on the topic and the interviewee’s work. You may have a standard list of questions for each interviewee – think about specific additions for each individual based on his or her background. Try to cover your issue from all points of view, and make sure you’re up to date on recent developments.

5)    Definition of victory. Consider the desired outcome of each interview: what do you want to learn, gain or address? This can be helpful to distinguish each conversation and each interviewee.

6)    Angle of inquisition. What will elicit a novel response from your interviewee? What can you ask, and in what frame, to prompt the interviewee to say something he or she hasn’t written or said a hundred times before? Think about what approach will prompt your interviewee to reveal insights rather than regurgitate talking points. Perhaps you’ll find that challenging their argument is a good starting point. (If you’re overly provocative, the interviewee may become evasive or may rise to the task).


On the interview itself:

7)    Focus. Just as an actor or athlete achieves composure during an outing, try to stay in the interviewer zone for the duration of your interview. Pay attention to responses, tone and direction. Pick up on useful sentences or reactions.

8)    Silence can be valuable. You do not need to fill all pauses. Breaks may help the interviewee’s thought process. If you are recording the conversation for audio distribution, you can easily edit out empty sound (as well as mumbled sentences).

9)    At the same time, be attentive. Prompt and reassure as necessary – but try not to ‘umm’ and ‘ah’ too frequently if you’re recording on tape. These sounds are more obvious and harder to edit out if overlapping with the interviewee’s voice. Maintaining good eye contact has obvious benefits.

10) Keep an open mind. Have a list of questions prepared, but don’t be afraid to go off book. Be ready to change tack mid-conversation.

11) Leave the tape running. Many useful statements are recorded after you have finished with the formal questions in interview.



12) Make a transcript. Listen back to the interview and type as you go – the transcript doesn’t have to be word-perfect. Then go through the transcript (your third time hearing/seeing the responses of the interviewee) to cross out redundant content (“waffle”) and circle the most substantive parts.

13) The one that got away. Think about what you would ask if you were to do the interview again. What questions arose after the act that merited inclusion? This process can aid preparation for future interviews and responses mid-conversation, and is a useful exercise to evaluate the success of each interview.


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