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Tips to Conduct a Respectful (and effective) Interview

a woman and a man talk at a kitchen table
Susan Reetz interviews Bill Lehman for Honor in the Air documentary film.

It's a good thing I am inquisitive because I spend a good deal of my work time interviewing people. Whether it's for a magazine article, a documentary film, or any other type of media, there are few techniques I've learned over the years that help me successfully - and respectfully - gather the information I need.

  1. Take the time to put your interview subject at ease before you start the interview. That may mean explaining what your process is, whether they will have the opportunity to review what you put together before it's considered final, making small talk, etc. If you're working on a film shoot you will usually have plenty of time to do this while the crew is setting lights and doing final prep. If it's just you and your subject, you probably won't need as much time to help them feel comfortable. Either way, I usually start with innocuous topics like the weather, traffic, or some other universal theme. I also make sure my initial questions are very simple and include confirming the correct spelling of their name, and their job title, if appropriate for the piece I'm working on.

  2. When I conduct an interview (or information gathering session) for a print or web article or blog post, I always ask if I can record audio. I explain that it helps me be in the moment during the interview yet allows me to reference back to the audio for accuracy when I am writing. I have only had one person decline in almost 3o years of work.

  3. If someone asks to see interview questions in advance, I try to oblige them, but let them know that there may be follow up questions that arise during the conversation. I assure them that if I ask something that they are not comfortable talking about, all they need to do is say so. They are doing me a favor by talking to me and I want to respect their limits.

  4. When the interview is finished, I remind them of how their interview will be used and when it will be shared to the public. In some cases, if the circumstances warrant them reviewing the piece before it's final, I explain what the timeline and process is for that review. I also make sure I give them at least two ways they can contact me if they think of anything they want to add to what they've shared with me, or if they have any questions.

It is a privilege to talk to people from diverse walks of life and learn a bit about them and their work, hobbies and families. When you respect their time, their comfort levels and their stories, your interviews will be successful and effective.

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