Interviews as a part of our daily life
Interviews surround our everyday lives – we are interviewed when applying for a new position or visiting the doctor, we consume media that draws on an interview formula and take part in social research and consumer polls (Emans, 2019), where feedback is gathered in the form of an interview. So what is interviewing? The most common answer would be that it is a facilitated conversation with an intent to gather information, with one person asking questions and the other one answering them (Brennen, 2013; Carpenter, Cepak, Peng, 2018; Emans, 2019).
The fields of use for interviewing range, from the academia, employment and journalistic community to newer concepts, such as motivational interviewing, which is an approach that aims to help people achieve positive behavioural changes through the practice (Bank, 2019). The techniques and skills required remain essentially the same, no matter the field of use. Techniques for interviewing don’t only come in handy for journalists or human resource specialists, however.
Imagine you are at a crash site and news media shows up to interview all bystanders. What will you say? How will you make sure nothing is taken out of context? Will you consider to whom this will be shown? What about when the interviewer is your friend who is posting it on social media? Will you be as vigilant? Giving interviews also requires skills that can be practiced and improved.
Interviewing in theory
Interviewing requires a 10-dimensional set of competences: listening, interaction management, verification, research, empathy, news judgment, self-presentation, articulation, observation and open-mindedness (Carpenter, Cepak, Peng, 2018).
In a journalistic context, interviewing enables reporters to take an active role in information gathering as opposed to the tradition of simply being stenographers and observers as was customary prior to the 19th century (Carpenter, Cepak, Peng, 2018). Interviewing a source is different from a simple conversation between equals, as the source is expected to speak at least 70-80 percent of the time (Aggarwal, 2006), whilst the reporters listen and acknowledge – this, in part, is important to keep news factually accurate, as journalists cannot be experts in all the topics they are covering (Gieber and Johnson 1961; Tillinghast 1982). Andrew Denton’s interviews for his Enough Rope television programme (2003 to 2008), many of which are available on YouTube, are a good example of how interviews can make the audience feel a whole range of emotions (Ricketson, 2016) and end with the audience feeling they got to know the interviewee intimately.
What differentiates journalistic interviewing from conversation even further is that even though reporters employ techniques to relax interviewees, they often do not consider the interviewee’s feelings during the interview due to the objectivity norm (Carpenter, Cepak, Peng, 2018) and due to having to represent the audience’s interests (Ricketson, 2016), as opposed to when counsellors or psychologists use interviewing as a technique. In both of these fields, the way an interviewee reacts when answering a question is as important as what they are saying.
Interviews can be held face-to-face, but also on the phone or through other digital mediums, such as using video conference opportunities or audio calls (Emans, 2019). As with anything, the choice of medium should depend on the results you are after, as all of them have their pros and cons. With face-to-face interviews, the interviewer can also take note of the body language of the interviewee, which is why it is usually preferred. On the other hand, in recruiting, blind interviews are used to minimise the risk of interviewer bias, which has helped increase the hiring of women and minorities in some tech companies (Miller, 2016). Using digital mediums makes recording and transcribing the interviews easier, but it also increases the risk for communication barriers with poor internet connection or other related issues.
There are different formats of interviewing. Unstructured interviewing is essentially a conversation on a topic agreed on beforehand, whilst structured interviews have questions assigned and in the case of several interviewees, they will be asked in the exact same order and wording (Lepik, Harro-Loit, Kello, Linno, Selg, Strömpl, 2014). Semi-structured interviews allow the interviewer to react to the interviewee and modify the questions based on the answers received (Lepik, Harro-Loit, Kello, Linno, Selg, Strömpl, 2014) and are mostly what people have in mind when talking about interviewing.
Practical tips for conducting an interview:
- Preparation is the most important part of conducting an interview. Become familiar with the topic and with your interviewee; if possible, look up earlier interviews they have given and make notes.
- Try and find the focus or main goal of your interview and prepare a set of questions – even if you plan on having an unstructured interview, having questions prepared in advance comes in handy in case the interviewee is not as engaged in the conversation as you were hoping.
- Check your technical equipment – whether you have decided to record the interview on your phone, with a dictaphone or with your laptop, you should see to it that the batteries are full and test out the recorder beforehand.
- Make sure you are able to take notes – not to write down everything the interviewee says, but to note down points of conversation you want to come back to later. This way you don’t have to interrupt the interviewee’s train of thought, but won’t forget to specify later on.
- Building a rapport with your interviewee starts even before the interview – being late can already get you started off on the wrong foot. Light conversation should precede the interview with a thank you to the interviewee for taking the time to meet you.
- When planning your line of questioning, keep in mind that the first set of questions should not be something that demands in-depth analysing or remembering events from way back in time – you should ease your interviewee into the topic, starting with behavioural questions that will help them to do so (“Tell me about the time when…”) and leaving the more difficult stuff to the end of the interview.
- Try not to interrupt the interviewee too much, except when they are trailing further away from the matter at hand or when you encounter words or expressions you are not familiar with.
- Follow up after the interview. Whether it is for academic or journalistic purposes, if you have promised to keep someone informed, you should do so (Emans, 2019; Lepik, Harro-Loit, Kello, Linno, Selg, Strömpl, 2014; Ricketson, 2016).
Finally, let us consider our role as educators and youth workers for a moment – besides improving our own skills in interviewing, we probably want to pass on this skill. When teaching interviewing to a younger age group, using technology for support has shown great results. Students being taught reporting skills like using their mobile phones for the task because of their familiarity with mobile phones (Wei, 2016) – why not start off with having two of them interview each other, record it and then watch and analyse it with the whole group? Learning by doing, as in so many cases, might also be the best formula for studying interviewing techniques. Once students see which type of questions lead to long conversations and insightful answers, they will know how to prepare better for the next time.