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Asking Good Questions, Active Listening Tip Sheet

Page history last edited by Digital Explorations 14 years, 2 months ago

Asking Good Questions/Listening Actively

"As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it."  Antoine de Saint'Exupery




Preparing the Ground for the Interview


  • When you make an appointment to interview someone, make sure you explain why you would like to conduct the interview and how you hope to use the interview.  Explain that you would like to record and publish the interview (explain if you will use a voice or video recorder and where you hope to publish the results), but that the subject has the right to ask that the interview be used only for information gathering and not for publication. 
  • Prepare for your interview by asking why you wish to interview this person and what you hope to learn.
  • Make a list of questions you think might help you get at the values through storytelling. Try to help your subject go beyond stories that state the general, a story about how nice everyone in town used to be, for example, without specifice details about what that means.
  • Send your interviewee the questions ahead of time, so s/he has a chance to prepare as well and to anticipate gathering of objects or images of interest.
  • Make sure you bring all of your recording equipment (voice or video recorder and microphone, cords, back-up batteries, tripods, headphones if you will use them--they do help to make sure you are recording correctly, images if you will use them, and a scanner if you think your interviewee will share photos, etc.)


Before the Start of the Interview 

  • Think of the interview as an opportunity to make a connection with someone, to engage that person in this exciting community endeavor.
  • After thanking your subject for the honor of interviewing him/her, explain that you will be asking permission at the end of the interview to use the recording, so the subject can decide then about how public s/he wishes to go with the information.  Also ask if it would be okay to take a photograph of him/her to go with the interview as well as any collateral material.
  • Make sure you have all of your equipment set up and tested before starting the interview.  It can be distracting for your interviewee to see you paying as much (or more) attention to your recorder and mic and notes as to him/her.
  • Choose a quiet location without distracting ambient noise. 
  • If you are videotaping the interview, make sure objects in the background will not distract viewers.  Make sure you have ample lighting.  Use a tripod.  Avoid zooming.
  • Start the recording before starting the interview.


Opening the Interview

  • Make sure you have the interviewee state his/her name.
  • Asking factual questions, who-what-where, about how long the person has lived here, etc can allow the person to get comfortable with you, the machine(s) and the warm up to the story.
  • Some questions to move into the heart of the interview: How has the community shaped you?  How have you shaped the community? Tell me about... Explain to me...
  • You could also show your subject some photos about which you would like to hear his/her stories.


During the Interview

  • Listen attentively with your body language as well as your ears and recording devices through eye contact and by nodding, smiling and leaning forward.  Be friendly and interested!
  • Do not interrupt your interviewee, but judge how much s/he will open up through conversation rather than through Q & A. Sometimes you will have to offer some of your own examples--but try to avoid directing attention to your opinion or your story. 
  • Do not ask  skewed questions that lead the interviewee to a specific answer.
  • Silence is okay.  Let your subject think a little.
  • If s/he gets off track, tactfullly find a pause, and pull the focus back to the topic with a question, or a "I was really interested in what you said about..... Could you tell me more about that?
  • Keep checking in with well-being of your interviewee by reading his/her body language.  Do not fatigue someone!   
  • Its okay for you to jot down notes for follow-up questions, but remember to return your attention to your storyteller!                                   

The Meat of the Interview--Useful Questions

  • To gather more precise detail:  Can you tell me more about that? What was so important about that particular event? Why is that a critical piece of the story?
  • To get at values:  What is the resounding  fact here?  The dominant emotion? How has this issue affected your life? 
  • When they indicate visuals through gestures, help them to describe what they are seeing for someone who will only hear them.


Closing the Interview 

  • What else should I have asked--did we miss anything?
  • Ask if you can take pictures of collateral materials (if any).


After the Interview

Go over the release form and ask if s/he will sign it.  Also ask if s/he would like a copy of the interview as recorded, and then a copy of it once edited.


Follow up with a thank-you note and copy of the interview.



Many people want to tell stories of times past because those moments appear as crystallized story nuggets to them.  The present is much messier, and the future, well, unknown.  An interesting interview option would be to ask the interviewee to tell you the three kinds of stories--one about what was, one about what is, and one about what might be--and have fun with the third.  It's okay to dream a bit, but you can also ask for ideas about how the town might actually make that dream a reality.


There are advantages and disadvantages to knowing your interviewee. Your subject might trust you and open up more; you might be able to anticipate excellent questions if you already know a little something about the person and the story.  You and/or your interviewee might, however, leave important details out because they are known to you. 


Document Version for download:  Tip Sheet on Asking Good Questions.doc






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