How can I avoid some rookie mistakes?
September 1, 2011 2:17 AM   Subscribe

Any non-obvious tips for conducting a successful interview? I'm looking for perspectives both in general and also considering my situation.

Over the next year I may have the opportunity to interview at least one tribal leader as part of an academic project. I am prepared for this to be difficult in more ways than one. Outsiders are understandably often targets for venting frustration. I am a young student and I look even younger than my age. I worry that it may be challenging to get the people I'm interviewing to take me seriously. I am not socially inept but I would not consider myself especially gifted either.

My performance will reflect on the reputation of my wonderfully accommodating professor who made these contacts possible. I'll need to tread the thin line between being highly respectful / making a positive impression and asking hard-hitting, meaningful questions. I'm not out to waste anybody's time: not my professor, the person I'm interviewing, nor my own.
posted by WhitenoisE to Human Relations (3 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Greet first. And pronounce words the way they were meant to be pronounced by the tribe.

That'll open the door to a meaningful conversation that starts with mutual respect.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:20 AM on September 1, 2011

Do as much research as possible ahead of time. It helps you write better questions and it makes the interviewee feel like their time is better-spent. Also, consider why the person has agreed to speak with you. Is it for publicity? Do they just want to tell their story to someone? Or what?

Maximize the conversation's value for your interviewee by being prepared/a good listener/etc., but don't worry about being socially gifted. It's not a dinner party; it's inherently a bit awkward. It is OK if they don't act friendly towards you. If they want to vent frustrations, that can be valuable information too. Don't talk a lot, except to ask short questions and to "actively listen"; an interview is not about you.

Ask open ended, preferably brief questions. Make a list of more questions than you'll need. If something unexpected + intriguing comes up at question #3, follow that path instead of moving robotically to question #4. Don't be shy about asking for clarification, either -- people want you to get the story straight.

Difficulties: if someone is stonewalling you and giving you short answers, sometimes you can just sit there in a little silence, and the silence will cause the person to start talking again. (Scribbling notes is a good way to bring some silence around.) Another technique is to ask factual instead of emotional questions; people who can't bring themselves to answer "how did you feel when Bob died" will often answer "what floor of the building were you standing on when you heard Bob was dead" questions. Save super-touchy stuff for the end. Explain that you want to understand/represent the interviewee's part of the story, and/or phrase the question in a non-personalized way. ("Some people would say you're responsible for Bob's death. What's your response to those people?")

A tape recorder is very helpful, but take notes all the same, because recorders fail. Know that video cameras often turn charismatic people into stammering fools.

Final questions that often elicit cool responses: "What do you see in the future for this situation? What question should I have asked, but didn't? Is there anything else you want to say about this situation?" and "What other person might I talk to about this situation?" Ask for permission to write or call with follow-up questions.

When you leave the person, go look at your notes right away, and add any details which you failed to write down the first time (i.e. what the place looked like, tones of voice, stuff you wrote in shorthand but won't be able to decipher next week, etc). Catalogue it/put it in your computer right away, and find a particular space for it, especially if you're going to be doing multiple interviews.

Good luck!
posted by hungrytiger at 3:52 AM on September 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Hard to add to hungrytiger's great list, but I especially agree with point 2. This is not a normal social conversation; your job is to get information. Don't worry about being liked, etc., except to the extent that it is important for the information-gathering function. Working too hard on trying to feel liked, show respect, or whatever, will detract from your job in eliciting information from your subject, because first and foremost you need to guide the conversation in a way that departs from normal social conventions -- e.g., you may feel unfriendly when you interrupt to stop them from rambling on a tangent, but you have to.

Expect to feel a little weird and floundering. It's normal, because you're learning a new skill.

On the practical side of things, I have found that it does not really work to write up a full script of questions beforehand. Inevitably you'll get off script with necessary follow-up questions and redirects. Instead, make a list of subjects you want to cover before hand as a guide, then review it as you go along (and at the end) to make sure you've covered everything.
posted by yarly at 9:47 AM on September 1, 2011

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