This article provides tips on how to run effective interviews for articles, research projects and podcasts.
Interviews are often an important part of conducting research for articles. However, running audio podcasts or transcripts are a great format in themselves for sharing knowledge. They’re also a useful alternative to articles in that they capture the voice and thoughts of activists and researchers and provide you, and them, with opportunities to probe topics more deeply.
Commons Librarian and community radio broadcaster Iain McIntyre recently spoke with the library’s volunteers about conducting and producing interviews in text and audio formats. Commons Library volunteers are learning a range of skills to help them develop and curate educational resources for social change. This transcript from the training session shares some tips he suggested.
Researching and Writing Questions
As with researching and producing any resource you should start by thinking about what information and ideas you’re hoping to capture and what you’d like your audience to come away with.
- Are you looking for someone to summarise and reflect on research, a book or a study they’ve produced about activism?
- Are you looking for examples that illustrate or explain theory and practice?
- Are you looking to capture a story as a case study?
You might find that when when you conduct the interview that it takes you in a whole other direction but thinking about what you’d like to achieve with it will help with the entire process.
You can go into an interview cold, and sometimes you may have to if you can’t find much existing information on the topic. But ideally you’ll have been able to do some research, which might include identifying who the best person is to talk to, how to locate them and the best way to approach them. This research will also help guide the questions you write.
Quick question tips
- Think about how you’d like the interview to read or flow, and structure your questions accordingly.
- Do you want to discuss a situation chronologically or focus on various topics?
- Use questions that are open ended rather than closed or likely to result in short answers.
- Move from relatively simple and comfortable topics to those that are more difficult, challenging or complex.
Conducting the Interview
Text or Audio?
How you carry out the interview will be largely shaped by the final product you want to create and whether that will be text or audio based. If it is text, then one option is to send a questionnaire or a list of questions by email. This allows the interviewee to take time in considering their answers and saves you time on transcription.
Although a dialogue can form through follow up questions and emails, it’s obviously easier to get one going, and immediately pop in clarifying and follow up questions, if you’re chatting in person or remotely.
If you’re going to be discussing events that go back some years or decades, or research that people did ages ago, then it can be good to send your questions ahead of time so that the interviewee has time to think about them.
On the other hand going in fresh can lead to more spontaneity and make it easier to adapt if the interview goes in an unexpected direction.
Having had equipment fail during interviews and programs like Zoom not function as expected, and once nearly 30 years ago just forgot to hit the record button, I usually try to record an interview via two different means.
An online interview can be recorded on Zoom or Skype and the free recording program Audacity at the same time for instance. If you’re meeting in person then you can use a recording device as well as your phone. When using a phone or phones, or if you just have one with you, then remember to switch on flight mode or use another setting that will prevent it ringing or causing other interruptions. If you’re using a computer then close or minimise your web browser, emails and anything else that might distract you.
Ideally you want to get the best recording quality possible as that will make transcription easier, and if you’re producing a podcast it’ll be more listenable. There are lots of ways to try and remove unwanted sounds and improve clarity later on, but to do that well requires time and technical knowledge.
Regardless of your skill level it’s simplest just to try and get the sound right from the start. This involves things like being aware of background noise and trying to minimise it, carrying out a trial recording with headphones on to check sound quality, and monitoring audio levels during the interview. At the same time, once your interviewee arrives don’t spend too much time with set up as you’ll want to make them the focus of your attention. I won’t go any further into the technical side of recording but there is lots of information out there about microphone placement, the best equipment to use, which audio formats to record in, etc.
Starting the Interview
In your initial contact to set up the interview you should explain what it will be about and the purpose it’s for, but it’s good to reiterate this on the day.
- At the beginning it helps to have a brief chat about how they’re going and if you’re in person show them where to sit, offer them a drink, etc.
- To help the interviewee orient their responses mention who the target audience is.
- Check in with the interviewee whether they can still spend the amount of time you’ve scheduled.
- Give them time to ask any questions.
During the Interview
- During the interview do your best to put the interviewee at ease.
- Once the interview is underway try not to interrupt their responses.
- Be an active listener and demonstrate curiosity and interest.
- Respect their boundaries and build up to questions about difficult and challenging issues in a supportive way.
- Try not to stick to your questions too rigidly.
- Adjust them to provide pertinent follow up questions to answers.
- Be prepared to go with the flow of conversation.
- If they get too off track then ease the person back to the key topics.
- If things are going well but time is running out then check in to see if they want to continue. Sometimes it takes people a while to warm up and they may be up for a longer interview once they get rolling.
- Don’t beat yourself up if it all doesn’t go as well as you would have liked, not everyone is an ideal interviewee and over time you’ll work out your own style and methods of achieving the best results.
Ending the Interview
- At the end of the interview don’t forget to thank them.
- Let them know what will happen next in terms of when the interview will come out, where it will be available, how it will be promoted, etc.
- When the interview is available contact them with the details.
Transcription, editing and final formats
Regardless of the format you’re going to run with it can be useful to start with a log where you take brief notes of what was said. This allows you to begin working out what to keep and what to cut and saves time locating sections when it comes to editing. Some people log things during the interview, but ideally you want to give the interviewee and what they’re saying your full attention. Some interviews I’ve been involved have used two people, one to do the interview and one to take notes and keep an eye on the recording process.
If you’re looking at producing a text version of the interview, and the sound quality is very good, then there are tools, like those that come up with Google Docs, which may save you the effort of typing via auto-transcription. So far, I haven’t found an affordable option that has been accurate enough to use with the overwhelming majority of interviews I’ve done.
Typically interviews don’t wind up following the path you’ve laid out in your questions and people often backtrack as things occur to them that they missed earlier. To make the interview easier to listen to or read you may want to edit and combine sections in a more coherent order.
If it’s going to be a text interview then you might look at running a final version that is in question and answer mode or weave things together so that the questions are left out. With text interviews I send the interviewee a copy to read ahead of publication to make sure that they’re satisfied with how I’ve edited, transcribed and presented things. This also gives them the opportunity to make changes and additions.
If you’re running with an audio version of the interview then there are lots of options including using a question and answer or conversational format, adding narration to flesh out points and provide extra direction, creating a documentary, mixing in music and additional sounds, and matching the interviews to visuals to create a video.
Once again, I won’t get into the technical side of this as there are plenty of guides online, but I will emphasize the importance of keeping a back up copy of the original interview so that you don’t lose anything that you later decide to restore or need to consult.
If you’re interested in doing an interview for the Commons Library then please get in touch here.
Examples of Interviews by Author
- “You can’t eat money”: An interview with Extinction Rebellion activist Jo Flanagan
- Victoria street squats: Anti development struggles in Sydney in the 1970s Interview with Ian Milliss
- Art for Change: Interview about fundraising with art
- Ducks For Detainees: Interview about artivism
Examples of other Interviews on The Commons
- Changemaker Chats
- Women’s Stories of Environmental Activism
- Creative activism: Hologram protest
- Performing Political History: An interview with Gary Foley
- Toward an Anti-Fracking Mobilization Toolkit: Ten practices from Western Newfoundland’s Campaign
- Get archiving! Archivist Activist backpacks, hackathons and other ideas
- Beginner’s guide to making video with your smartphone
- Writing for The Commons Social Change Library