Questions to Ask

When you conduct an interview, you need to make the most of your time. The purpose of the interview is to add to the other information you have found through your research. You might find it easiest to brainstorm for all the potential questions you can think of, and then cross off or reword the ones you don't think are pertinent.

Obtain New Information

You conduct an interview to learn details that you didn't find in your previous research. It is pointless to hear responses that are just a repetition of what you have read or seen elsewhere. As your research progresses, you probably can identify some gaps in the information, such as insights that data couldn't provide but that personal experience does. The perceptions of your interview subject should tell you what you couldn't find elsewhere, but you'll have to ask the right questions to find out what that person's perceptions are.

Thinking on the Spot

Though it is essential to prepare questions ahead of time, those questions may change completely over the course of the interview. You may hear answers that take you by surprise. These answers could lead the interview in a different direction than you expected. You may find that what you thought you would hear is different from what you are hearing. For example, you may be interviewing a former employee of an oil company about a spill the company had. You may expect the employee to tell you that it was simply an accident or the result of an error in judgment. Instead, she tells you that these spills happen all the time and are usually covered up by management. You would want to change your line of questioning at that point to find out the whole story. No amount of forethought could have prepared you for this revelation. It is important to think quickly while you are conducting the interview. Be prepared to ask totally different questions than those you had planned if anything interesting comes up. You may also find that your interviewee doesn't want to answer a certain line of questioning or that the person doesn't know some of the details you had assumed that he or she would. Be prepared to alter your line of questioning, and don't be shy about asking for leads to other potential interviewees.

Getting People to Talk

Some people love to talk and will give you detailed answers to every question you ask. Your only problem with them may be to keep them on topic and to get all your questions answered in the amount of time you have allowed for the interview. Other people will state their answers to your questions as briefly and succinctly as possible. Your challenge then is to get them to elaborate on their responses.

Some interviewees prefer to remain anonymous. As long as the person is credible, and assuming that you don't have any other possible interviewees who could give you the same or similar information, you should honor this request. In your report, you need to identify such interviewees while preserving their anonymity. Examples might include “a prominent local business leader” or “a national baseball player.”

The way you word your questions can make a big difference in the way they are answered. Some questions will just be about facts, and these are generally answered briefly. But you should also ask about the interviewee's feelings or ask for a description of events, and these answers will be much longer. You should ask open-ended questions—that is, those that allow for a detailed answer as opposed to a “yes” or a “no.” Make sure your questions don't show your own opinion on an issue, because you don't want to influence the answers or offend the person you are interviewing. For example, if you were interviewing a local politician, such as a city council member, about a proposed dog control bylaw concerning dangerous dogs, you might ask these questions:

  • What exactly is a dangerous dog?

  • What additional things would the owners of dangerous dogs have to do in regard to licensing, muzzles, and so on if this new bylaw is adopted?

  • What breeds of dogs do you consider to be more dangerous than others?

  • Why doesn't the city think it should ban certain breeds of dogs?

  • Some dogs are a continual threat to those in their neighborhoods. What is proposed in this bylaw for owners who won't keep those dogs under control?

There may be times when a response makes you suddenly think of a further question. Resist the urge to interrupt, which disrupts the answer the person was already giving. Jot down a word or two to ensure that you remember to ask the new question after the current question has been answered.

The interviewee may have questions to ask you at this time. This is fine as long as you are comfortable with them. The interviewee may also be able to offer further details that you missed asking about. Because this person is central to the topic, these details almost always are a welcome addition to your project.

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