The Quick and Easy Guide to Interviewing

While published and other secondary sources can be an effective way to gather information, sometimes primary sources need to be tapped. Direct research often is not feasible due to time or financial constraints. Interviewing experts is often the best way to gather information. Experts can be used during the initial stage of gathering data, as you progress through the project to check your work, and as a final quality control measure for your document. You may also compare expert opinions to aid your analysis and strengthen your conclusions.

Interviewing for Information

There are basically three stages of interviewing for information: preparing the interview, contacting and interviewing the source, and follow-up. While these stages are generally sequential, there may be overlap.

Preparing the Interview

You basically have three tasks in this stage. First, you need to define the purpose of the interview. What information do you need? How will you use this information? What form should the information take and from whom will you get it? Most importantly, you need to define the scope of the interview.

Second, you need to determine whom you should interview. This can sometimes be the trickiest part of an interview. Often you can used published sources to find an expert. Various directories, including "Who's Who in ..." and membership listings for Chambers of Commerce and professional associations, are available through public libraries. Corporations and agencies often have public relations staff to assist researchers looking for sources. However, sometimes the best strategy is simply to call another expert and ask for a referral. (For students, this often means using faculty to connect with experts outside of academia.)

Finally, you need to prepare questions for the interview, including an introductory script to use as you approach your expert for an interview. Keep in mind both your purpose and the likely availability and willingness of your expert. Your questions should be specific rather than general, and include a mix of factual and open-ended questions. While the number of questions will vary, it is usually a good idea to prepare a longer list than you expect to use. The source may volunteer information that answers more than one question.

Contacting and Interviewing the Source

When contacting the expert source, remember that in most cases they are not obligated to give you an interview. Keep your introduction brief and professional, explaining the purpose of your interview (which may include an overview of your project) and outlining the information you are seeking. You may want to offer to send an outline or sample questions of the interview. (Note: Do not send your actual list of questions. This may limit your access to the expert or range of follow-up questions.)

Use the interview format and schedule that best fits the source. While an on-site interview may offer the advantages of tours or demonstrations, they may be more difficult to arrange, and usually take more time. Phone or e-mail interviews are timely and inexpensive, but may not allow as much depth or range of interviewing. (Hint: While many people will not give a formal interview in-person or over the phone, they may be willing to answer questions via e-mail. This is usually the fastest way to collect information from a source as well.)

At the beginning of the interview, ask the source for permission to quote and cite the information you will gather. Note any restrictions the source requires. Get complete personal information on the expert. (An easy way to do this is to ask for a business card.) You may ask to record the interview, but if the source refuses, or just seems uncomfortable, you should rely on note taking instead.

Present your questions directly and professionally. Begin with the least complex questions, then move to more difficult topics. While you should stick to your list of questions, don't be afraid to ask relevant follow-up questions. If an answer is incomplete or unclear, ask for clarification. If the expert wanders from the subject, simply ask another question from the list to stay on task. Do not spend time during the interview talking about your project; you are there to collect information.

At the end of the interview, thank the expert for his/her time and information. Ask permission to follow-up if necessary. If you have time, you may ask to briefly review your notes with the source. You may want to explain again how the information will be used. Also, you may offer to share your findings with the source if appropriate.


Immediately after the interview, send the source a thank you note. This may be as formal as a letter of thanks, with copies to superiors, or as informal as a quick e-mail. This is polite and professional. It is also a way to keep your connection to the source active a little longer.

As soon as possible after the interview, review your notes. No matter how good an interviewer you are, you may find that you need more information. Usually a follow-up phone call or e-mail is adequate. If the subject matter is difficult, or if additional elements have been added to the problem, you may need to ask the source for an additional interview. Again, be polite, professional and to the point. Follow the guidelines above and send an additional thank you note.

Tips for Interviewing

The Quick and Easy Guides for Writers

Written By: George Knox © 2001