Asking questions

[November 2011] Lately I’ve been asking a lot of questions. No, I’m not experiencing existential angst—I’ve been conducting interviews for a couple of project.

I am by no means a professional interviewer, but this isn’t my first experience, either, and I’ve learned a few things over the years that I thought I would share.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, though the person being interviewed is getting exposure from the published article, he or she is doing you a favor by consenting to the interview. Always remember that when you go through the possible frustration involved with setting an appointment for the conversation that may end up getting rescheduled. Possibly more than once. Be flexible and agreeable. You want the interviewee to be relaxed and comfortable when talking to you—not edgy and peevish.

The first thing I always do after making initial contact is to determine whether the subject would prefer to conduct the interview via e-mail or phone (assuming a face-to-face interview is out of the question). In the last two months I’ve conducted nearly ten interviews and the split is about 50-50. Some people think they can give more eloquent, reasoned answers via e-mail. Others find that it takes much less time to conduct a 20-30 minute phone interview. I’m fine with either format, and both have benefits. With e-mail interviews you end up, generally, with complete sentences in the responses. There are no hesitations or false starts. The interview subject has time to fully prepare a cogent and sophisticated answer. One thing I always do with an e-mail interview is add an introduction that invites the subject to respond at whatever length they want and gives them the option to skip any questions they don’t feel like answering. I usually close with an open-ended question that encourages the person to say anything that wasn’t covered by my questions. I’ve gotten some of my best material there.

On the other hand, the opportunity to do follow-up questions based on the answers is easier when talking to someone on the phone. Granted, you can always send follow-ups via e-mail, but you lose some of the spontaneity and give-and-take of a phone interview. Plus, on the phone you hear the other person’s voice and inflection. That won’t translate through to the print interview, but it’s valuable nonetheless.

Before conducting a phone interview, make sure you know the local laws about recording calls. Texas, for example, is a one-party consent state. So long as one person on the call (i.e., you) knows it is being recorded, that’s fine. However, if the interview subject is in a different state, the laws may be different—in California, both parties must consent, for example—so it is always best to ask the other person if he or she will allow you to record the conversation. It’s the polite thing to do, regardless of the laws. Technically, all you have to do say that you’re recording, but asking is nicer.

When it comes to recording phone calls, there are a number of options. I picked up a neat little gadget from Amazon called the VEC Phone to PC Audio Adapter for less than $25. This only works on phones with cords: you unplug the receiver from the base unit, plug it into the VEC and then plug the VEC into the base unit. Then you plug the additional supplied cable into the microphone input jack on your PC. From there you can use any audio recording software to capture the input. I use Audacity. Another option is an earphone that fits between your ear and the receiver. It also plugs into the microphone jack on your PC and picks up both sides of the conversation. This option works for any kind of phone, including cell phones.

Yet another option is to use Skype. I found a great, free plugin called the MP3 Skype Recorder that syncs with Skype, detects incoming and outgoing calls and records automatically. Because it has access to the Skype API, it knows what contact you’re calling and names the file accordingly. Works like a charm, and the “phone call” is free. It also separates your voice and the other person’s into separate channels, so if you happen to talk on top of each other, you can turn down one channel to hear what’s happening on the other. Pretty slick.

As for the voice interview itself: be prepared. Have your recording software ready to go before you start the call. Click Record after you have the proper consent. I always have a sheet with questions ready, and a pen at hand so I can make notes for follow-ups if something occurs to me during the call. Do your research: you may end up asking the same questions that other interviewers have asked before, and that’s okay. Your readers may not have had access to those other interviews. However, the more you know about your subject, the more informed your questions can be. On the other hand, don’t be so well prepared that you come off like a stalker! It’s okay to let subjects know you know where they grew up or went to school. Not so okay to let them know you know what they had for dinner last week.

Try to clarify anything that comes up during the interview. If a word sounds unfamiliar on the phone, it will likely remain so on the recording. Ask the person to spell anything that’s questionable. An experienced interview subject may do that for you automatically. Give the subject plenty of room to talk. This is about them, after all, not you. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on to the next question. A few seconds of dead air gives the other person to expand on an answer. If you accidentally cut the other person off, apologize and ask them to continue. You might get some of your best material in these afterthoughts.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject again for agreeing to the interview and save the recording immediately. The worst thing that can happen is for the program or your computer to crash and for you to lose everything. Especially if you haven’t been taking notes. I also recommend transcribing the interview as soon as possible after the call, while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you encounter words or passages that you can’t make out, follow up via e-mail for clarification. I generally provide the interview subject with a copy of the transcript for review. This helps prevent embarrassing gaffes. The interview subject may also take the opportunity to elaborate on something.

I’m not conducting adversarial interviews, so if someone says “don’t print this, but…” I don’t print it. I don’t even include it in the transcript. I also identify any verbal ticks and remove them from the interview. In one recent case, someone had a habit of saying “sort of” at least once a sentence. I took them all out. Your goal here isn’t to make the subject look bad. We all have tics. I also delete false starts. You want the person reading the interview to be able to follow it easily. In theory, you could put in ellipses to indicate deletions, but I don’t. I’m simply smoothing out the rough edges of a conversation to make it read well in print.

Finally, to cover yourself, you should probably have the interview subject sign a release form that allows you to use the conversation in print. Though that’s generally the mutual understanding when you conduct the interview (whether via e-mail or phone), it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the subject will have a change of heart later on, so you want to be covered. There are plenty of boilerplate interview consent/release forms out there. They specify the date of the interview, the venue in which it will be published, the names of both parties, and an explicit indemnification statement. Depending on where you plan to print the interview, a release form might be mandatory.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for now. Any questions?

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