A Great Lakes Colleges Association initiative supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Module: Developing Effective Interviewing Skills

Developed by Allegheny undergraduate student Chelsea Contino, in consultation with Professor Emily Yochim

Developed with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Collaborative Undergraduate Research in the Humanities grant

In the life of an ethnographer or oral historian, proper interviewing skills and procedures are not only helpful in ensuring interviewees’ comfort, but essential to collecting useful and meaningful data for analysis. Informed by my own experiences, I offer a few tips to carrying out a productive and effective interview.

1. Respect your interviewee’s comfort level.

During the interview process, it is imperative that you ensure your interviewee’s comfort. Be as flexible as you can about meeting time and place if possible. Be friendly and open about the process, being sure to answer all questions about the interviewee’s known role in the overall project. If there are any aspects of the interview that you would like to try to control for, such as a quieter meeting place, be sure to ask kindly and explain your reasoning for the choice. Most of all, be sure to vocally emphasize your desire to uphold his or her utmost comfort. This assurance will allow

the interviewee to be more open and trusting with you from the very beginning.

2.Explain all known aspects of the project at hand and obtain informed consent.

It is important to fully explain the research project and their role within it, if known, clearly to the interviewee. Explain that they may choose to withdraw from the project at any time and choose which questions to answer or not. Of course, gaining informed consent is important for any project involving human research subjects, so be sure to have a consent form that reiterates the goals of your project available before you begin the interview. This will likely be a requirement from your Institutional Review Board and will also add to the ethical integrity of the project.

3. Consider taking notes or recording the interview.

It will be very difficult to remember everything that your interviewee says, so it will be extremely helpful to take notes during the interview. However, also be sure not to simply stare at your notebook the entire time! Make eye contact often and use subtle gestures, such as nodding your

head, to let them know that you’re paying attention. If your interviewee mentions something that you’d like to hear more about, jot down a quick note to yourself to ask them about it later.  Additionally, with your interviewee’s knowledge and consent, you might find it helpful to record your interview so that it will be available later for transcription and analysis.

4. Try to create quality sound recordings for future use.

If you plan to use the audio recordings further along in your project, perhaps as the basis of a podcast or digital story archive, be conscious of the background noise as well as your own interjections in your interviewee’s responses. Try your best to limit the “yeahs” and other subtle responses that may occur when listening to your interviewee. Also, try to avoid picking a loud and busy location to conduct the interview. This will save you a lot of frustration down the line when piecing together a podcast or even just attempting to hear your interviewee’s voice while transcribing. Noise reduction software can only achieve so much, so try your best to control for it when you can.

5.  Mindfully create a cohesive list of interview questions.

Your interview questions should be carefully crafted with your broader research inquiries and goals in mind. It is important to come up with a list of about 10 to 12 open-ended questions that can lead to further elaboration and the mention of other topics. Additionally, it would be a good idea to see if your interviewee has online sources available for their business, band, etc. It is always beneficial to do some preliminary research before sitting down to write up your questions. That way, you can ask questions specific to your subject as well as show respect for what they may do within your community. It is also imperative to order the questions in a way that makes sense and allows for continuous conversation and further elaboration of certain topics. The creation of interview questions should always be a mindful and active process that helps you further determine what you want to discover by the end of the project.

6. Be conscious of the questions that you ask.

I must stress the importance of eliminating easily answered yes/no questions as well as leading questions from your list. You want to avoid solitary yes/no questions simply because they leave little room for elaboration. They can also lead your interviewee to answer one way or another by letting your own biases or speculations seep into the question. Here is a simple example: asking your interviewee “Would you rather play basketball or softball?” forces them to choose between two options. On the other hand, asking your interviewee “What is your favorite pastime or hobby? Why?” allows them to choose from any number of options as well as provide an opportunity for an explanation of their choice. The latter format allows you to form a question that is still specific to your research project, yet does not lead your interviewee to answer in any one way.

In addition, you should always keep in mind the context within which these questions are being asked. Remember to treat sensitive or controversial topics, such as race, gender, and other personal information, with respect and care. Do not push your interviewee to answer any questions that they do not wish to answer and omit from the record any information that they reveal and then later ask to be kept from the public.

7. Allow the interview to follow the natural flow of conversation.

Sometimes, sharing a little personal information about yourself or finding a point of commonality between interviewer and interviewee can facilitate an environment of trust and comfort as well as contribute to the quality of the interview. Additionally, you should prepare a set of questions in an order that makes sense and in a way that allows topics to flow from one to the next smoothly. However, do not be concerned if the conversation gets off track or if your questions end up being addressed in a different order. Do not be afraid to add questions that might come up for you during the meeting as well! This will almost definitely  happen, but simply think on your feet and you will be able to get even more information than you had hoped! You should actually strive to ask additional, more in depth questions that you had not even thought to include on your list in the first place. This will help you think through more complex ideas and discover new ideas in the process.

8. End the interview by asking if your interviewee has anything they would like to add to the record.

It is always important to hold your interviewee’s thoughts in high regard and as valuable to your project. One way of making sure that your interviewee feels well represented and respected after the interview is by asking for their final thoughts, concerns, or opinions. By doing this, you are creating a sense of completion to end the interview with as well as opening up the conversation to be fully controlled by the interviewee. Often times, important topics that may not have come up during the interview can be talked about during this time. Furthermore, you can also answer any questions that they make wish to ask of you.

9. Keep in touch after the initial interview and look to your interviewee as a resource.  

     It is always a good idea to ask our interviewee if they know of anyone else in the community that may be interested in being interviewed for your project. They often times can help you to expand your project much further by connecting you with more people. In addition, remember to exchange all necessary contact information if you have not already to ensure easy contact. Ask them to keep you up to date on upcoming events that may be pertinent to your project.

10. Thank your interviewee profusely!

Always remember to thank your interviewee profusely for their time and cooperation! A handwritten letter, sincere phone call, or well thought out email sent out a few days after the interview is always a good idea and much appreciated by your interviewee. Also, remember to keep in contact with your interviewee about your project and let them know about any outcomes or presentations that may occur!

Lesson Plan and Practice

In order for students to prepare to interview research participants, it might be a good idea to hold a few workshops, lab periods, or class activity segments that helps demonstrate and employ the particular interviewing skills outlined above. Here are several ideas that could be carried out separately or as a series of connected or simultaneous activities.

First, begin by assigning each student a practice interviewee or allowing students to pick their own practice interviewee. This could be another student in the class, a friend of a friend, or even a professor or staff member at the college. Regardless of how interviewees are chosen, it is important that the interviewer and interviewee do not know each other too personally so as to simulate the full effect of interviews students will be carrying out later in the course

Activity #1: Writing Good Interview Questions

  • Assign a general topic for the practice interview. What do you want your students to learn about their interviewee? Potential topics to ask about could be a favorite travel experience, career and job journeys, childhood memories, or even a favorite hobby.
  • Tell students to come up with 10 to 12 interview questions that follow all of the suggested guidelines outlined in the tips above. Be sure to remind them of the importance of asking in-depth questions rather than focusing on easily answered yes/no questions as well as keeping their particular interviewee in mind.
  • Once students formulate their questions, have them conduct a peer review, always keeping in mind the guidelines above. Come together in small groups or as a class to discuss the questions and possible issues students ran into throughout the activity.
    • NOTE: As extra practice, you can also choose to conduct a peer review with the formal questions students create for the research participants.

Activity #2: Taking Notes

  • You may choose to utilize the questions formulated in activity #1 or you may choose to distribute a single set of questions to all students. This activity is best done with students during class time.
  • Allow students to conduct their interviews. This activity is focused on ability to take notes while still paying attention to an interviewee. Instruct students to make eye contact and encourage interviewees to elaborate through subtle gestures while still trying to jot down important notes.
  • After conducting the interviews, bring the class back together and have the interviewers introduce the interviewees, focusing on telling important information they have learned during the interview using only their notes. This will help interviewers practice their listening and note-taking skills. In addition, you may instruct the interviewees to offer constructive criticism to the interviewers about their skills.

Activity # 3: Listening and Adjusting Format

  • Again, you may choose to use the questions formulated in activity #1. Alternatively, in order to accentuate the purpose of this activity,  you can distribute a single set of questions to all students.
  • Then, allow students to conduct their interviews either inside or outside of class. The major point of this activity is for students to practice their face-to-face interviewing and conversational skills. Instruct students to pay most attention to honing their listening skills and adapting the order, format, and even content of their interview questions. Really focus on finding that conversational flow within the interview.
  • Come back together as a class to discuss the obstacles that arose, new questions that branched from the original set, and ways in which you could improve your adaptational skills.

Further Sources and Reading

“Quick Tips for Ethnographic Interviewing(A Guide for College Students).”Interview Tips. N.p.,

n.d. Web. 09 June 2016.

Madison, D S. “Methods” Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Thousand

Oaks, Calif:Sage, 2005. 27-43. Print.

Ellen, R. F. “Informal Interviewing.” Ethnographic Research: A Guide to General Conduct.

London: Academic, 1984. 229-36. Print.

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Written by

Emily is Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Theatre at Allegheny College. She is a media ethnographer, Emily frequently employs oral history methodology in the classroom in order to engage students in the community and deepen their understanding of how media infuses everyday life. She is particularly interested in digital storytelling and using oral history to foster community engagement. She is the author of Skate Life: Re-imagining Masculinity and Mothering through Precarity: Women's Work and Digital Media, with Julie Wilson.

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