Conducting Field Research

Interviewing Experts

Sometimes, the best information comes "straight from the horse's mouth". An interview is a conversation with a purpose; that being, to gather information from a person with first-hand knowledge-a primary source. Whenever possible, arrange a meeting with an expert in the field of your inquiry. Or, if you are investigating a particular group of people, interview a typical member, someone who represents the whole group and can speak for all of them.

You'll be surprised just how many people, from all walks of life, are willing to be interviewed-some even flattered by your attention. Choose them carefully. Regardless of who they are, prepare to interview them thoroughly. Chapter 4 "Writing from Conversation," in the Bedford Guide to Writing, offers some good advice:

  1. Make an appointment and schedule enough time-at least an hour.
  2. Be prompt and be prepared. Bring a list of carefully thought-out questions.
  3. Make sure your subject is willing to be quoted in writing.
  4. Really listen. This is the art of the interview. Let the person open up.
  5. Be flexible and allow the interview to go in unexpected directions.
  6. If a question goes unanswered, go on to the next question. You may be able to come back to it later.
  7. At the end of the interview, be sure to confirm any direct quotations you may use in your document.
  8. Make additional notes immediately after the interview, while the conversation is still fresh in your mind.

Be sure to take notes during the interview. These will come in handy later, when you reconstruct the interview on paper. Even when audio-recording, you should do this: In addition to recording important points and accurate quotations, notes allow you to record details that do not lend themselves to audio-recording. Your subject's mood, appearance and behavior, for instance, as well as your sensory impressions of the interview setting will come in handy when you begin constructing your document.

If an expert isn't readily available-perhaps the nearest one is too far away-you may be able to arrange a telephone interview. Make an appointment for a time convenient for both you and your subject. A busy person may not be able to give you even ten minutes on the spur of a moment, but all the time in the world if arranged for in advance. A further word of advice, don't try to wing-it; have written questions in hand before you dial. Take notes and follow all the other rules just as if you were doing the interview in person.

Note: Federal regulations forbid recording an interview over the phone without notifying the person being interviewed. When recording over the phone, you must also use a recorder connector with a warning device that emits a beeping signal at fifteen second intervals.

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