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Toolkit

Oral Interviews: Preparing, Conducting and Reporting

By Carol White

Getting Ready
Preparing Your Questions
Setting Up the Interview
The Interview Itself
Reporting

An oral interview is an effective research technique that can be improved with practice. There are no set rules, but there are some proven steps that will help you to perfect your skill.

Getting Ready

A successful interviewer fully understands the assignment. Why do you want this interview? What do you hope to learn? What is your focus? What do you know about the topic already? It is very difficult to formulate good questions without knowing something about the topic. Take the time to research your topic and the person you wish to interview. The time will be well spent. With a good overview, you will be able to create intelligent and specific questions.

Preparing Your Questions

Keep your focus in mind as you prepare your questions. Incorporate the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why) plus How. Use the type of question that will best elicit the information you seek. For example:

Factual questions ask for specific information or facts: "Who worked with you on this research project?"

Definitional questions elicit clarification or specific information: "In your book, ___________, you emphasized the importance of eating fruits and vegetables in filling your antioxidant quota. What do you mean by the term, antioxidant quota?"

Comparative questions look at two issues or objects to see if there is a correlation between the two: "How is your study different from the one recently completed at McGill University?"

Causal questions search for reasons: "Why did you choose this particular research method?"

Speculative questions look for a reflection or opinion: "Where do you think your research will lead you next? If you could go back and change things, what would you do differently?"

Before you consider yourself ready, go back over your questions and refine them. Are they relevant? Are they specific enough? Will they help you find the answers you need? Are they in the right order? Do they all fit on one page?

You do not need a lot of questions and you do not need long ones. You need questions that are beneficial to your inquiry, and that are clear and concise. Eliminate any yes or no answer questions, as they do not lead to informative answers.

Setting Up the Interview

Once your questions are prepared, it is time to arrange the interview. This can be done by telephone, email or letter. Whichever method you use, use a positive approach.

Introduce who you are, what school you are from and the purpose of your call. Never start off with a negative such as "Do you think it is possible that I could interview you." Instead, say something like, "Hello, My name is ___________. I am a student from ______________. I am currently working on _______________and I would very much like to interview you to find out _____________________________."

If you have done your homework, you will also be able compliment the person on their work or comment on how they can contribute to your understanding of the topic.

Choose the method of contact that will work best for this individual. In some cases, the person will want to conduct the interview right then and there over the telephone. Be prepared in case this happens. Have your questions with you. Another good reason to have your questions available is that the person you wish to interview may want to know in advance of the interview what questions you will ask.

Once the person has agreed to the interview:

  • Set the day, time and the place for the interview.
  • Ask for directions if needed.
  • If you wish to use a video, camera or other recording devices, you will need to request permission.

Occasionally, no matter how positive and prepared you are, you will be turned down. Be respectful and thank the person and then start your search for an alternative. This individual may be willing to recommend you to someone who is willing to answer your questions.

The Interview Itself

  • Be on time!!! Do not start out on the wrong foot by being late.
  • Allow time for setting a comfortable mood. If you arranged the interview through a secretary, introduce yourself and the purpose of the interview. If you arranged the interview directly, remind the individual of who you are and outline what you want to accomplish during the interview.
  • Choose your first question carefully. It will set the tone for the rest of the interview. Do not start out with a tough question that demands a lot of thought. Save that question for later. A person at ease will be more likely to share interesting insights.
  • Know your questions. Practice them. This will enable you to maintain eye contact throughout the interview. The more prepared you are, the more at ease you will feel.
  • If you are not recording the interview, take detailed notes. Take special care to make sure that potential quotes are recorded accurately.
  • Be a good listener. The main purpose of your interview is to allow the individual to tell his or her own story. Do not interrupt unless it is absolutely necessary -- for example, because the interviewee is getting way off topic. If the interviewee is sharing an interesting story, do not rush to the next question. Be patient!
  • Do not worry about short silences. The interviewee will want to make sure the story is correct. He or she may want to think through the answer before responding.
  • Keep your objectives in mind. Are your questions working? Do they need to be altered? Do you need to ask for clarification? Both you and the person you are interviewing want the correct story to come out. He or she would prefer you ask for clarification, rather than interpret something they said incorrectly.
  • End the interview on a positive note. Ask your interviewee if there is anything he or she would like to add. Leave your contact information in case he or she thinks of anything after you leave.
  • Be sure to follow-up with a thank you card or email showing your appreciation for his or her time.

Reporting

Just as you set the focus for your interview, set the focus for your presentation or write-up. Consider whether your focus has stayed the same or whether it has changed slightly due to insights that emerged during the interview. Will your interview findings be the feature of your report or integrated into a larger topic? If it is to be integrated, where, strategically, will you use it?

Go back through your notes, tapes, etc. and pick out only those points that are relevant to your focus. Pick out quotes that will add interest and authenticity. Once you have all your information chosen, prepare your outline, which will include your introduction, body and conclusion.

Introduction:

  • Introduce your topic.
  • Get the audience's attention and forecast important points.
  • Present your thesis or focus.

Body:

  • Provide the essential information about your topic.
  • Go from general to specific.
  • Use action verbs.
  • Check all quotes that will be included to make sure that they are accurate and complete.

Conclusion:

  • Reinforce the essential points.
  • Make a connection to the introduction.
  • Leave the audience with a point to think about.

Complete the writing process by composing a draft and then, after editing and revising, your final copy. Make sure your interviewee is cited as a source. If this is an oral presentation, practice just as you did before your interview. Detailed preparation leads to a confident presentation!