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Interviews—Do Them Successfully!

Women talking on the phone - interviews

“Interview someone.” Yesterday’s assignment for this challenge reminded me of an amazing series of interviews I did. I orchestrated forty hours of interviews from 2017 to 2018 for my fourth book and learned so much. In 2017, a writing project fell into my lap, the biography of the most famous square dance caller in the world, Marshall Flippo. He lived in Tucson, Arizona; I live close to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We did a face-to-face interview to start with in October 2017 in Tucson, then one more in March 2018. So, most of those interviews we did over the phone.

Larada & Marshall Flippo
Larada & Marshal Flippo

My Suggestions for successful interviews

  1. Be in a quiet space for the recordings. The second face-to-face interview we did in a restaurant with lots of background noise. Even though I did mosts interviews at home, several had interior background noise from my cat and my husband, but it was mostly undisturbed.
  2. Set a specific time and length of time. Think of the age of the talker and set the length accordingly. Flippo was 90 years old, so we did an hour each week.
  3. Have specific goals and questions prepared ahead of time, but let the person go where he wants. A friend warned me that Flippo might hijack the interview, and he did. But I wouldn’t have gotten those extra captivating stories.
  4. Record the interviews and back up regularly to multiple places. To record, I used an iPad app, VoiceRecorder, and left a copy on my iPad. Then I uploaded the file immediately after the interview to DropBox, an online storage space. I regularly made a backup of that folder on DropBox.
  5. Number and date each recording for later reference.
  6. Take handwritten notes. I filled four steno-pads and numbered the notebooks and dated them, following the numbering system of the recordings. I also noted each time where I was when recording.
  7. Ask questions about spelling and specifics immediately–don’t wait. Flippo passed away before I could get answers to all my questions, so I had to ask his son and ex-wife.
  8. Don’t stop the talker from sharing a memory multiple times because Flippo went deeper and added details each time he recalled it. The meat of the stories and memories is in the details. So when I wrote the book, I laced the details from the multiple renditions together.
  9. Listen to what the talker is saying and not saying. When asked, Flippo avoided his first divorce at first, and I knew this was a key part of his life and painful. When the time was right, his sharing was heartfelt and authentic.
  10. Limit your responses because the focus is on the person interviewed. After transcribing these interviews, I realized I laughed uproariously at Flippo’s stories, and my laughter blocked out his comments that followed. My laughter made some parts difficult to transcribe.
  11. Use a visual aid to stimulate memories, stories, and ideas. Flippo’s ex-wife, Neeca, put together three photo albums/scrapbooks of his calling career during their marriage, and we went through them page by page. He physically had the scrapbooks, and I had a digital copy. They sparked so many stories I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise; he had so many.
  12. Don’t comment–you may have an opinion about what is being said, but refrain from commenting. Your opinion doesn’t matter.
  13. After transcribing interviews, ask questions you have from unclear recordings or information you don’t understand. Flippo died before we finished, so I didn’t have the luxury of asking him. Again, his son and ex-wife helped me out tremendously.

Finally, I know that my advice about interviews is for a biography with multiple interviews. The meat of these suggestions still applies. Enjoy the experience and savor the time someone shared with you—it’s a privilege!

What advice would you give for having a successful interview? Add your comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Interviews—Do Them Successfully!

  1. As a journalist, I interview a lot of people. I find that if I start with an open ended question and then base my follow-up questions on the answers to the open ended question, I get more information and the person I’m interviewing feels more comfortable.

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