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Before the interview

Ask yourself these questions:

In person, by phone or by e-mail?

In general, the more live and interactive the interview the better, although this depends on the type of interview, what you need to get out of it and your time constraints (not to mention your interviewee’s). The telephone is generally better than e-mail because it allows for give and take, which makes the interview process feel more conversational and informal.

Doing research

Your interview will go more smoothly and be more useful to you if you’re up-to-speed on the interviewee and the topic. Some tips for doing research in advance.

However, many officials and professionals, particularly those who are interviewed often, prefer e-mail. On the plus side, e-mail interviews are reassuring to many people because they will have a record of what they said — and you can be sure to quote them accurately.

If you do use e-mail, ask your source if you can follow up by phone if you need to clarify a point.

Sheila Regan, a contributor to Twin Cities Daily Planet, warns of a pitfall of e-mail interviews. “Sometimes [sources will] cut and paste from their press materials,” she says. “When you’re talking about a real report on something, it helps to really talk to a person.”

Audio recorder or notebook?

You may wonder whether to use an audio recorder or to take notes by hand. Everyone is different. Many people find it difficult to write fast enough to take good notes. Audio recorders are accurate and free up your hands (and mind!), but transcribing tapes is time-consuming. Over time you’ll figure out which note-taking method you prefer. One thing: Audio recorders can fail, so back-up notes are a good idea.

In several states, it is illegal to record a telephone conversation without the explicit permission of the interview subject. Check out our guidelines on state laws for recording.

You’re always better off if you say, “I’d like to record our conversation so I am sure to quote you accurately.” Someone who does not want to be recorded will let you know.

Interview Tip

If you’re nervous about the interview, jot down a list of questions to use as a crib sheet. But be open to where the conversation takes you.

List of questions?

mcbride90x101Suzanne McBride of Columbia College in Chicago, co-founder of, a site that trains citizen journalists to cover their neighborhoods, says new interviewers frequently want to know how to order their questions.

“It’s not really the order that matters,” McBride says. “Have more of a conversation.”

Still, if you’re new to interviewing or are a bit nervous — because the topic is controversial or the interviewee is busy and you have time for only one good question — think about your questions in advance and write down something that will help jog your memory.

Study your crib sheet so you internalize it — that will make you sound more conversational when you do ask the question or questions.

Above all, don’t waste the interviewee’s time asking questions such as how to spell names or correct titles that can be gleaned from a Web site or business card.

The Interview Process

More Helpful Tips on Doing Interviews

Next Section (During the Interview)

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