Editorial services by Laura E. Goodin

The Horse's Mouth: Get Your Sources Talking
by Laura E. Goodin (©2009)

Sooner or later, almost every university student finds (often to their horror) that their instructor expects them to interview someone as part of their research. This can be intimidating. You're just a student, and you might be approaching one of the leading experts in your field, someone who's very busy doing important things. You may be afraid of bothering them, or of looking like an idiot in front of them. And what if they don't talk about what you need to know?

Most people have never learned how to conduct a successful interview, but, like most things, it's fairly straightforward once you know the basic steps and a few tricks.

1. Identify Your Interview Subject

The Internet is your friend here. If your instructor has not assigned you a particular person, you'll need to find someone. The good news is, geographical distance is no barrier. The bad news is, you can have too much choice, and you'll have to put some extra effort into narrowing it down until you've found just the right person.

Here are some questions to show you how to get started:
  • Who wrote, edited, or contributed to your textbooks?
  • Who wrote the articles your professor assigns?
  • When you search for recent articles or web pages (no point trying to interview someone who was an expert 70 years ago; they won't be saying much by now!), whose name keeps coming up?

Make sure you search on the specific subject on which you want your interview subject's insights. Be as precise as possible. ("Mining" is not very useful. "Longwall mining" + "New South Wales + "geology" will get results.)

2. Before the approach

The first thing you need to sort out is exactly what result you want for the interview. This doesn't just mean what you want to talk about, but what you want to find out and why this person is the one you want to find it out from. "I want to know about longwall mining in New South Wales" is a start, but it's not enough. "I want my interview subject to tell me why mine subsidence from longwall mining is better or worse than that from bord-and-pillar mining and hear her recommendations for mitigating it. She's the right person to tell me because she has spent the last five years researching and publishing on exactly this subject" — that's more like it.

3. The approach

You've found the right person to help you find out what you need, and you know why this is the right person. However, before you phone or email your interview subject, make sure you read their bio. You must know where they're currently working, what areas they're currently involved in, and what their most recent publications are (if any). This will help you compose your invitation (which you need to do before you contact them).

An email is usually the best initial approach. A phone call is okay, but it can put the interview subject on the spot if they can't give you an answer right away. Either way, your approach should go like this:
  • Identify yourself right away.
    "Hello, Dr. [   ]. My name is [   ], and I'm doing some research for my [   ] class at the University of [   ]."

  • Say what you want.
    "Specifically, I'm researching [   ], which I know is one of your main research areas. I was wondering if you could spare some time over the next week or so to talk to me about [   ]."

    (Note: make sure you've kept most of your own calendar free for the next week or so! You want to be available when your interview subject is.)

  • If they agree, set up the details.
    "What date and time would be good for you? How much time will you have available? Would it be convenient if I came to your office, or would you prefer to conduct the interview by phone, email, chat, or Skype?"

    Each of these modes has its advantages. Email provides the perfect way to document the interview: you have the subject's own words, exactly as they themselves typed them. Chat is useful in that regard, too, providing your chat program has a "save conversation" function. Phone calls and Skype require you to voice- or video-record and take excellent notes, but they're more interactive and can be more time-efficient for the interview subject (although not for you, as you'll need to spend more time transcribing your notes).

    If they don't agree, thank them politely and don't pursue it. You may meet them later in your career, and you want them to remember you as a professional who respects other people's time and priorities.

4. Research

Now the real research begins. Read everything you can find on the specific topic. Spending a half hour a day for a week is better than spending ten hours the night before: you need time to find materials, read them, and build the underpinning knowledge you need to avoid sounding like an idiot. Your interview subject's time is valuable, and so is yours. Don't waste it by making them teach you the basics.

5. Preparation

Write down your questions and practise asking them. Your fundamental attitude here is crucial. Do not go into this thinking that now's your chance to prove your interview subject wrong or change their mind or dazzle them with your brilliance. It's not about you. It's about wanting to learn from someone you respect.

Each question needs to directly advance your goal for the interview. No matter how interesting you may find some of the possible side-topics, stay focused! Know why you're asking everything you're asking, and be ready to tell the interview subject. (It will increase your credibility no end if you can answer calmly and intelligently when the subject asks you, "Why do you want to know that?")

Make sure you're familiar with your university's paperwork requirements regarding interviews. There may be release forms, ethics-compliance forms, or other forms you and your interview subject need to sign. Your instructor will be able to help you.

6. On the day

Hopefully, this goes without saying, but dress neatly and show up exactly on time (for in-person interviews) or very slightly early (for chat or Skype interviews). Thank them immediately after "hello", before you ask anything, and smile when you do it. They need to see you appreciate the trouble they're going to.

Ask your questions efficiently, from your written list. Record the answers efficiently as well. Make sure all recording devices, computers, webcams, microphones, and software are entirely reliable. If you're writing things down, write quickly.

Stick to the agreed time limit, and don't get sidetracked. If a question or clarification occurs to you that isn't on your list, quickly jot it down and ask it at the end. Ask your subject if you can email them later to ask for any clarifications.

Make sure you give your interview subject any forms they need to sign, and don't rush them while they're reading them!

And, of course, thank them again at the end.

7. What if they don't tell me what I need?

Most of the time, because you have chosen your interview subject well, approached them politely, and prepared properly, the interview will go smoothly. The subject will be willing to help, and your questions will get you the information you need.

If, however, the subject insists on talking off topic, listen and learn — and at the first opportunity do your best to bring the conversation back on track. Some things that might work are, "I'm anxious not to take up too much of your time. Do you mind if we come back to talking about [one of your questions]", or "That makes me curious about [one of your questions that's slightly related to the off-topic point]", or even "I'm really finding that interesting — would you be willing to take some time next week to talk with me about that? Because today I'd really like to make sure I get your thoughts on [one of your questions]."

If the subject is unpleasant or simply will not talk about your questions, still learn what you can, thank them, and head back to the drawing board.

8. Afterward

Write up your notes right away — that very afternoon, if possible. And before you forget, send a thank-you email (or even a paper thank-you note) to your interview subject, no matter how the interview went.

If they've asked to see your write-up before you turn it in, you will probably be obligated to do so by the rules of your university (but you will know this, because you will have already talked to your instructor about the rules). But — rules or no rules — there's nothing wrong with giving the subject a chance to correct any ambiguities or things you might have misunderstood. After all, what you're after is quality information, not a late-breaking scandal.

Why all this is important

Preparing for and conducting a good interview is a lot of work, but it pays big dividends. In the short term, you get a much better paper to give to your instructor. More importantly, your interview subject — whom you selected because they're a leader in your field — now knows you take the trouble to do things right, you're courteous and respectful, and you really want to learn. And that can only be a good thing!

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