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Interviews, A Writer's Resource
By Joan Whetzel
Research for essays, term papers, journalistic writing, and other forms of writing frequently use both primary and secondary research. Secondary research consists of making use of the research already done by other writers. Primary research involves finding original materials for your research like personal observations, surveys, demographic data, personal diaries, firsthand accounts, and of course, interviews.
Choosing the Best Interviewee
The best person to interview will have some connection to the topic of your writing. Interviewees may be:
- Subject matter experts.
- Someone who was there when the event happened or lived through an experience that is relevant to your topic.
Why Conduct an Interview?
Interviews provide specific details you just can’t find anyplace else. The person you interview can provide personal experience and insights that don’t show up in the usual scientific and academic writing. The interviewee may even provide first-hand accounts of historic events, biographical information, or family histories that will be forever lost once that generation dies out.
The Right Questions and the Wrong Questions
Let’s start off with the wrong questions. The wrong questions are biased or leading. They push the interviewee into giving you the answer you want rather than the true answer which may well be the more interesting answer, and most likely won’t be the answer you thought you would get. Loaded questions, like the ones TV drama lawyers love to ask, are designed to make the person answering look bad no matter how they answer it. Confusing questions will lose your interviewee because they won’t be able to figure out what it is that you are asking. Questions that don’t relate to your topic won’t provide you with any useful information. Too many “yes” and “no” questions won’t elicit the details and first-hand information that will make your writing great.
Now for the good questions. Good questions are open-ended and encourage the interviewee to elucidate. Your questions should invite them to spill those juicy little details that people love to read about. If one of their answers is intriguing but leaves you wanting more, ask questions to draw out that extra little nugget. Interviewees usually like it when you ask questions in response to their answers, because it makes the interview feel more like an intimate conversation with a friend than a talk show, and because it makes them feel like you’re really interested in what they have to say. They may even open up more.
There are several methods for interviewing someone, depending on your needs and how easy or difficult it is to work out your schedules. The most personal method is the face-to-face interview, which tends to be more intimate. You can take in their body language as a part of their answers, which will give you a better feel for what makes them tick. However, this form of interview is not always possible because of time constraints, schedule constraints, or because you live in a different city or country from the person you wish to interview. Then you must consider one of the other methods:
- · Snail mail interviews, where you mail them the questions, and let them answer at their leisure.
- · E-Mail interviews. Again you send them the questions, but usually – as with all electronic communications these days – there is more a feeling of immediacy. They know you need the answers a little more quickly and will respond sooner than with a snail mail.
- · Phone interviews also have that immediacy about them. You also get a feeling of what makes them tick by the sound of their voice. These work best if you have a way of recording them to reference later.
- · TV interviews or pre-recorded interviews, are great because you can keep replaying the recording to make sure you get all the details. You also have the benefit of an interview with someone who may be deceased. On the other hand, they don’t always ask the questions you would have asked, but you can’t have everything, right?
In-Person Interview Etiquette
The basic etiquette, when it comes to interviewing someone you don’t know, means showing up on time and dressing properly. For some people you may need to dress up in a suit and tie or a dress, while in other cases, blue jeans and tee shirts will do better if the interviewee would feel more comfortable dressed casually during the conversation.
Start off with a little small talk to get the juices rolling. Then start gradually asking questions, beginning with the easy ones and moving on to the more in-depth questions. Ask the questions that you really need the answers to early on, in case anything should happen to cause the interview to be shorter than either of you intended.
Be kind when you talk to the other person, being careful with your wording. You’re not there to insult the person. They have valuable information that you need. And after the interview is completed, be sure to thank the person sincerely for taking time out of their busy life to sit down and talk with you.
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