My Thoughts

10 Secrets of Interviewing Someone

Being a rookie at interviewing someone on a big project, I let my instincts take over, and it worked. I’d like to share what worked for me.

I spent over a year interviewing Marshall Flippo, a ninety-year-old world famous square dance caller, for his biography weekly for one hour. Our first meeting was face-to-face and we talked for over two hours, but the majority of the weekly interviews lasted one hour and were over the phone. I limited the time because of his age, and it worked well for scheduling in my busy life, too. I recorded all the interviews using the Voice Recorder app for my iPad.

We did a face-to-face marathon session at the end of March, 2018 at CALLERLAB, the annual meeting of callers, in Albuquerque, NM. We clocked nearly two and a half hours of conversation and went through two photo albums/scrapbooks to stimulate his memory–what rich stories came from this.

During our next few interviews, we continued scouring the third album, and a square dance friend made this possible. Flippo had the album in front of him, and I had a digital copy on my computer this friend scanned for a birthday celebration presentation he did in 2016 for Flippo. Again, the visual helped him remember events, people and places.

If you’re looking for advice about how to interview someone, here’s what I learned:

  1. Record the interviews and back up regularly to multiple places. Number the recordings for later reference. Be in a quiet space for the recordings–several of mine have interior noise from my cat and my husband.
  2. Set a specific time and length of time. Think of the age of the talker and set the length accordingly.
  3. Take notes. I used four steno-pads and numbered and dated them, following the numbering system of the recordings. I also noted where I was when recording.
  4. Ask questions about spelling and specifics immediately–don’t wait. Flippo passed away before I could get answers to all my questions.
  5. Don’t stop the talker from sharing a memory multiple times because he goes deeper and adds details each time he recalls it. The meat of the stories and memories is in the details.
  6. Listen to what the talker is saying and not saying.
  7. Limit your responses because the focus is on the person interviewed. After transcribing all of these interviews, I realized I laughed uproariously at Flippo’s stories, and my laughter blocked his comments that followed. My laughter made some parts hard to transcribe.
  8. Use a visual to stimulate memories. Flippo’s ex-wife, Neeca, put together three photo albums/scrapbooks, and we went through them page by page. They sparked many stories that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise; he had so many.
  9. No Comment–you may have an opinion about what is being said but refrain from commenting. Your opinion doesn’t matter.
  10. After transcribing interviews, ask any questions you have from unclear recordings or information you don’t understand.

I wanted Flippo to feel good about the interviews and the direction this project was going, and he did. He let me know often, and family and friends told me how much he looked forward to our weekly time together.

Flippo’s biography will be released September 2019–I’ll keep you posted.

Let me know how you handle interviews like this. Do you have any advice? In a couple weeks, I’ll share some secrets I learned about transcribing recordings of interviews.

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2 thoughts on “10 Secrets of Interviewing Someone

  1. When I was working as a journalist, I found it was very important to listen, rather than talk. Often your silence encourages them to “fill the void” and share more valuable information.

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