Posted in Research Skills

The Personal Interview, Part II: Preparation Matters

“You only get out of it what you put into it.”

Trite? Yes. Cliche? Most certainly. True? Absolutely, especially when it comes to the personal interview. If you want more information from a book or a journal article you can always refer to it later, but with a personal interview you generally have one chance to get everything you might need. Proper preparation will ensure that the interview is productive for the researcher and not, to put it bluntly, a waste of the source’s time.

Contact your potential source.

Make sure to contact your source well in advance of the assignment’s due date out of courtesy and to allow for maximum schedule flexibility. If you are soliciting an interview cold (you do not know the source) take time to discover the source’s preferred method of contact. This may require using an e-form on a website or contacting a departmental administrative assistant but should never, unless otherwise stated, involve calling the source at home. If the person does accept phone calls at work please be considerate of their schedules and avoid calling them at busy times. No matter what contact method you use you will need to let the source know the following:

-Who you are and why you have contacted them
-The nature of your project (includes audience and possible publication or web posting)
-How long you expect the interview to take
-A general idea of the types of questions you will ask and topics you want to cover

Schedule the interview.

Meet at a time and place of the source’s choosing. If your schedule is limited, let them decide from a range of potential meeting days and/or times. Make sure that you will be able to arrive on time and allow enough time to cover all of your questions (including follow-up questions.)

Know the material, know your source.

The key to formulating good, specific interview questions is knowing both the topic and your source’s contributions the topic’s body of knowledge. Research both before beginning your question list to ensure an intelligent and productive interview.

Develop your questions.

Good interview questions are open-ended and allow the source to give a thoughtful, informative response. Questions that require only a “yes,” “no,” or similarly short answer will provide little or no useable information and halt the flow ofconversation. Consider the following hypothetical questions one might pose to a field biologist:

Question 1: Did you see any bears during during your time the Smokies?

Question 2: How many bears did you see during your time in Smokies and what factors do you feel influenced that number?

Which question would you rather hear the answer to? Which would provide more information that you might use later in your paper? Exactly.

Maintain your balance.

For most topics there is a large body of accepted knowledge that is readily found in most available resources. It’s important to hear your source’s opinions on these matters but you also want to use your valuable interview time to record your source’s unique knowledge of the subject. Consider beginning the interview with a few general questions and use them to lead into more specific questions about your source’s particular interests.

Develop your follow-up questions.

Anticipate potential answers (which will be easy, because you know so much about the topic and your source) and make note of follow-up questions that clarify or elaborate upon the source’s responses.

Check everything. Twice.

Conducting a productive and professional interview means being as organized and efficient. Do you know how to get the interview location? Is your list of questions in an easily accessible format? Are the batteries  on your laptop or recording device charged? Do you have a backup plan if the batteries fail? Does that chat software work on your version of Windows? Is the microphone and audio functioning properly? Is your cellphone turned off?



We are the librarians at Haywood Community College in Clyde, NC. We offer great books, a variety of research & educational services, and a staff full of general awesomeness to the HCC and Haywood County communities.

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