Supporting students for interview assignments

Vol 2., No. 1 (Spring 2021)
Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR.

Google slides for presenting this material as a workshop.

Interviewing gives students greater intimacy with an event or subject in a way not otherwise possible with secondary research. In interview assignments, students connect first-hand to an individual’s accounts of, for instance, their participation in a protest event or reflections on their career in ways that support their understanding of course content. Interviewing is a process that is very much like writing; it involves stages of researching, outlining, writing, rewriting, and editing. For this reason, writing specialists and tutors situated within locations of writing support have much to offer students as they prepare for and write about interviews.

Anecdotally and in our research, we hear that students are not coming to our writing centres with these kinds of assignments. However, developing our expertise explicitly for this task and creating resources to support students with these assignments is important. Students need support in formulating effective questions, conducting ethical interviews with integrity, and drawing out connections between this primary research and their literature review. It may be that students will seek out the expertise of writing specialists when that expertise becomes more well known though advertised supports. The stakes are often high with interview assignments as they’re frequently capstone projects that represent a high percentage of final course grades.

Interviews can become pivotal moments or turning points in students’ educational and skill development. I have experience interviewing for television and film, as well as for writing projects, including for this blog. It’s been something that I’ve always enjoyed, as I’ve met many people whose experiences have changed and shaped the way I now look at the world. Interviewing provides for an understanding of events or people that is deeply nuanced and specific. It provides insight into the depth and complexity of issues that isn’t otherwise available, expressed in how a person reacts to a question, where their thoughts go, and the subtle changes that occur that all humans have but are particular to each of us individually. If we want students to connect to their subject of study, interviewing provides this in spades. However, it can be a risky venture… for both interviewer and interviewee. It is pivotal that support is available to professionalize students as they take on interview projects. What follows are some basics to help us become a part of that support. 

Interviews: The Basics

There are four parts to an interview: 

  1. Research (which includes contacting the interviewee), 
  2. Pre-Interview, 
  3. Interview, and 
  4. Post-Interview, 

each with their own specific skills.

Part one: Research

Researching begins with searching

Starting this process means finding someone to interview. As odd as it may seem, this can be something overlooked by students and instructors, as there is an assumption that people want to speak about what they’ve experienced (speaking from experience). It can scuttle the whole assignment from the start if students flounder here, so it’s important that the interview is lined up before getting too far along. If there is no one to interview, then it’s best for the student to move on to another topic—better to do this early and save all the work and heartache. It is also important to let students know that interviewees may back out, so it’s a good idea to have a few options available.

Finding a subject requires cold-calling (or messaging via email or social media), contacting and asking for an interview. Doing this often makes people nervous, especially for anyone who doesn’t have any experience at this. Personally, this is the part of interviewing I enjoyed most. …But, where to start?

A number of years ago, I worked as a researcher on an anti-smoking PSA campaign for television. The campaign was to warn the public of the dangers of second-hand smoke by finding stories of non-smokers who were dying from cancer as a result of second-hand smoke. Finding this kind of interview subject required honesty and empathy, as a well as a directness in approach. 

I knew that hospitals and clinics, which seemed like natural places to search, were not going to provide information about patients. I then thought of support groups for cancer survivors. In speaking with a few organizers of these groups, they suggested contacting public health organizations. Part of public health organizations’ role is public education, so this turned out to be a natural place to look. I eventually found subjects by contacting public health organizations across Ontario, first speaking with the organizations’ media contact. These contacts put me in touch with the organizations’ directors, most of whom were nurses or nurse practitioners who worked directly with the public. They knew about those in their communities who were in these situations, and directors contacted these people to gauge interest, and then forwarded them to me. The result were powerful TV spots that spoke directly to the dangers of second-hand smoke.

The search is not often a direct one. To start, look for organizations that are related to the topic or subject of the interview. When this has been narrowed, it is best to look for the media relations contact within the organization. Media relations’ job is to gate-keep, but also to provide messaging for the organization. Oftentimes, they will be able to, at the very least, point students in the right direction, provide other contacts and leads, and may even provide names of potential interviewees. It’s a very good place to start.

Here are some key things to have or know in advance for this first contact:

  • What is needed from the interviewee for the project the student is working on;
  • A background, history, or knowledge of events of the interviewee;
  • Some of the questions that might be asked in an interview;
  • When they could do a pre-interview meeting;
  • Where to send the interview script;
  • Where and when the interview could be held. Have a calendar handy;
  • How long the interview is expected to be (not more than an hour); and
  • A pen and paper to write down notes.

When speaking with the interviewee, be courteous and direct. Allow them the opportunity to ask questions. Offer them a range of days, times, and modes (written, video, audio) for the interview. The interviewee will ultimately have the final say about when the interview will take place. 

Part two: Pre-interview

The pre-pre-writing process

Once the potential interviewee has indicated that they’re open to participating in an interview, there are two separate times to schedule a meeting with the interviewee: the pre-interview and the interview. In the pre-interview (via email, phone, or video chat), the interviewer should confirm the details of the interview, get to know the interviewee, and, most importantly, provide a draft of the script.  

The interview all flows from the interview script. It is important to remember that the interview provides the data or information for the focus of the assignment. This is key: interviewers should know what they’re looking to get out of an interview from the start. The outline for the script is built from the completed research information on the event or person and from any information from the initial contact with the interviewee. 

Usually, an interview script builds towards two or three pivotal questions that are the crux of the interview. To get there, the script should work towards these questions, bringing along the interviewee; think of it as a story the interviewee is telling. Good interview scripts have some of the following elements, thing that I’ve learned over the years from experience:

Question #0

If recording the interview on video or audio, make sure to ask the person to say their name, title, position or other relevant biographical information at the beginning of the recording. Having the interviewee introduce themselves can be a good way to start an assignment video or podcast. It’s also a good way to check research with what the interviewer says. And, getting an interviewee’s information wrong is embarrassing for them…and for the interviewer. 

5-8 questions

When an interview starts, time goes quickly, so limiting the number of questions is important. Getting through all the questions is important. I would recommend a maximum of 10, but preferably 5-8. This is important, as there will inevitably be follow-up questions that will come out of the interview process to ask.

One questions for each question

If you’ve seen or heard a good interviewer, they seldom ask more than one question at a time – they don’t have part A and part B at once. Each question should allow the interviewee the ability to focus on one thought at a time, and the sequences of questions should build these thoughts towards the ultimate questions of the interview. 

Pre-interview contact

Once the script is complete, and the interviewer is feeling confident, the next step is to contact the interviewee for a pre-interview chat. It’s a chance to go over the script, to get to know the interviewee, and to finalize the script. The interviewee should be e-mailed a copy of this final-draft script prior to the pre-interview session. It’s important to remember, this pre-interview process is as much for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee. 

In a pre-interview:

  • Go through the script together so that there are no surprises for the interviewee. They should feel comfortable with the questions. 
  • Take notes as the session progresses. Ask them about the topic of the assignment, and if there is anything in the script that could be added or edited.
  • Set a time and day for the interview. 

With the information from this call the interview script is completed, so any note-taking here is important to the script. This conversation is also a chance to get to know the interviewee a bit, which can make the interview more comfortable for both interviewer and interviewee.

Part three: The interview

If students are recording the interview—either for audio or video, in person or remotely—there are some steps to make the interview go smoothly, especially for inexperienced interviewers. Here are some key things to consider:

Make the interviewee comfortable

Before beginning to record the interview, make sure that the interviewee is comfortable, has some water, and is ready to go. Ask, “Are you feeling comfortable? I thought that we would start if you are.” Most people will be nervous to be interviewed, as will be the interviewer! So this is a chance to recognize this—but, don’t ask, “Are you nervous?” thinking it’ll help calm them. It’ll have the opposite effect. 

Have a pad of paper to write down notes during the interview as it goes. The interviewee should know that the interviewer may be taking some notes, and for them to just keep talking. 

Introductions and setting up

As I mentioned above, make sure the interviewee says their name and title if recording. If in the video or audio of the interview the interviewer will not be seen or heard, the interviewee should wait a second before answering questions, so as to have a break between the questions and answers. This will allow for editing space for the final project. It’s also important to ask the interviewee to repeat the question in their answer. For example, if asked, “When were you at the protest?”, the interviewee should respond, “I was at the protest on April 3rd,” instead of just “April 3rd.”

Getting the interview started

It’s best not to just go directly into the questions. A good way to get this interview going is to ask the interviewee to speak about themselves, their work, or the event that the interview is about. Remember, it’s a conversation, not hard-hitting reporting. This is where the conversation from the pre-interview comes in handy; the interviewer can say, “Remember when we spoke earlier about the protest? You mentioned that this was not your first protest.” This can help the interviewee to remember similar incidents, put their mind on the subject, setting up the interview questions.

The interview

From this move directly into asking the questions without saying, “Okay, here’s question one,” and continue through to the end. Often the interviewee’s answers make the interviewer think of other questions; this is where the pad of paper comes in. Write them down, and save any new questions for the end. It is best not to deviate from the questions that the interviewee have agreed to—and it is easy to get lost on sidebar questions and run out of time. This has happened to me. It becomes messy to try and get back to the original script. If any extra questions are significant enough, ask the interviewee for some extra time to record the answers.

Silence is the interviewer’s friend 

It’s important to allow for the silences—these are a natural part of an interview. Often the interviewee will need some time to reflect. During this time of silence, it’s important to let it be. If the interviewee apologizes for the silence, say that it’s not a problem, and for them to take their time. These silences can lead to more nuanced answers.

Near the end

As the interview nears the end, let the interviewee know: “This is the second last question.” This will help the interviewee, especially those that are nervous about the interview, and it will allow the interviewer to bring things to a close. After the final questions, ask the interviewee if there is anything they would like to add or if there are other comments, etc. This is also the time for any questions developed during the interview. Such questions can be asked by saying, “In question 3, STUDENTS said… Can I follow up by asking if…” It’s best not to ask too many follow up questions, though, so as to be aware of the time.

It is important to tell the interviewee that the interview is concluded. This can be important if there is a chance of triggering the interviewee to past events during the interview. It allows them to relax, and come back to the present.

Part four: Post-interview

Check the video and audio

This may sound like a given but be sure before the interviewee leaves the interview to check if the video or audio recorded. Not pressing record can happen to the best of us…

*Checks notes*

Because there may not be another chance to be in the same room or on a video link with the interviewee again, it’s important to make sure to quickly check for any other information that might be needed from the interviewee.

Be sure to ask the interviewee if they can contact again should any other questions arise or there is a need for clarification. Also let the interviewee know when the final project might be completed. They’ll want to know.

The end

This is a broad overview of conducting an interview to get this conversation among writing specialists started. There could be additional blog posts on

  • Writing interview scripts, 
  • Conducting the interview,
  • Editing audio or video files,
  • Writing about interviews, including in the IMRAD, journalistic, and other genres
  • And many others relating to interview projects.

I am looking forward to the continuation of this conversation.