Characteristics of a Good Interview

Characteristics of a Good Interview
Adapted from Paula J. Paul
OAH Magazine of History, Spring 1997

1. Come to the interview well prepared with background knowledge of the subject, familiarity with your recording equipment, a consent form that the interviewee will sign giving you permission to use the tape recorded interview for research purposes. You should also mention that the interview will be archived as part of a larger project documenting the lives of Latino migrants in the United States.

2. Make the narrator as comfortable as possible; polite, friendly behavior will put your interviewee at ease. Interviews should not begin abruptly. Take the time to introduce yourself and to talk about your project. For example, “Hello Mr. Jones, I’m Jill Savage. How are you today? Thanks for taking time to let me interview you about your migration experiences for my oral history project.  Let’s find a quiet place where we can sit down and talk. Where would you like to sit to do the interview? How would you like to proceed with the interview?”

3. Take time to find a quiet spot in which to conduct the interview. Remember that even the sound of clocks, pets, chatter, add distracting noises to the recordings and may also distract you and the interviewer, affecting the overall quality of the interview & recording. Set up the recorder between yourself and the interviewee. Before you turn on the recorder, ask if the narrator is ready to begin.

4. Begin the interview with a few simple questions that the interviewee can answer easily and comfortably.

5. Ask questions one at a time and do not rush the interviewee to respond.  Allow the interviewee time to think and respond. Do not become anxious by silence. Silences will make for a better interview; pause at least ten seconds before asking a new question.

6. Speak clearly so that the interviewee can easily understand and hear you. Keep the questions as brief as possible so that what you are asking will be clear to the interviewee. Repeat the question if you need to.

7. Ask as many open ended questions as possible. These questions encourage the interviewee to tell stories rather than providing yes/no responses.

8. When constructing your questions, write them in clear, plain English. Remember that your interviewees are not academics.

For example, do not ask: “How has gender impacted your migration experience.” Rather, ask, “What was your experience like as woman crossing the border?” “How did being a woman affect your decision to migrate?” “How was your experience as a woman different than that of other migrants you know?” “Tell me about what your experiences as a single man were like immigrating to the United States.”

Another example. Do not ask: “Did you access social networks?” or “what social networks if any did you access?” Instead, consider: “Were there people (family members, friends, or co-workers, for example) that you depended on to help you with your trip?” Or “Were there family members or friends that you were able to depend on when you first came to the United States?”  Then you can ask follow up questions if they answer yes…For example: “Who were they? And, in what ways (or how) did they help you? Was that common practice?”

9. Listen actively to the interviewee’s answers and then ask follow up questions like, “how did you feel about that?” or “what happened next?” to bring out more details before you go on to the next question on your page. Respond appropriately to the interviewee. Pause or say something like “that must have been difficult” if the interviewee describes a painful memory. Also, if the interviewee is clearly overcome by emotion, ask if they would like to take a break and/or stop the interview and return to it later.

10. Do not contradict or correct your interviewee and keep your personal opinions to yourself as much as possible. Do not ask leading questions like: “Tell me about that winter, you must have had a miserable time.”

11. Do not rush the end of the interview. Have a good closing question that helps the interviewee summarize or come to a conclusion. You might consider asking them if there is anything they wish to say that they may not have already told you, before pausing the recorder.

Always thank your interviewee for the time and generosity in helping with your project. Remember to have the interviewee sign the release form.