Are you going to conduct some interviews for your research? Feeling a little lost? This post compiles some practical tips to help you conduct semi-structured interviews successfully.
As a mixed methods researcher, I love listening to people’s stories as much as I do sieving through a well-organized data-set.
Don’t get me wrong – while I love listening to stories, the idea of conducting extensive interviewing for my PhD had me biting my nails. I felt lost; sure, I’d interviewed people during Honours, but the expectation and sheer quantity for the PhD was much greater. What could I expect from interviewing? What should I say? How formal should I be? What should I wear? All of these questions and more. While I could find academic material on conducting interviews to ensure rigour and validity, there wasn’t much out there giving me a clear understanding of what to expect interviewing.
During my PhD I conducted 31 interviews with 19 people – it took more than 19 hours!
Don’t get me started on transcribing. 19 hours of learning, making mistakes, meeting new people, awkward pauses, and me saying “Oh, wow!”. During this time I drank my weight in tea and consumed approximately 214 Tim Tams. Through my experience interviewing both for my PhD and during Honours, I learned a couple of things. Below, I’ve put together some useful tips from my experience. These tips are aimed at first-time qualitative interviewers, providing some practical recommendations about how to conduct semi-structured interviews.
Are you a seasoned professional interviewer? Feel free to comment and offer your own tips below! I’d love to hear about your own experiences.
The whole purpose of the semi-structured interview is to let individual stories emerge – it’s about facilitating a platform for the interviewee so they can speak about their experience. As an interviewer, try to limit how much you speak. Try not to interrupt, however tempting it may be. It’s a careful balance between directing conversation around ideas central to your research, and letting new and innovative ideas emerge.
Is your interviewee nervous? Are you nervous? That’s okay! Take time out before starting the interview, perhaps five, ten minutes, and have a good chat. Talk about the weather, about their kids, their dog, their work. Ask them about their life, and practice your earnest nodding. Or, even better, take genuine interest in what they’re saying.
Don’t be afraid of silence
A silence in interviewing is not something to be avoided.
Depending on the sort of research you’re conducting, chances are the questions you’re asking require your participants to think carefully before responding. Silence is not always an indication of misunderstanding or unwillingness to respond. Sometimes it means your participant is thinking, processing, and carefully constructing their response. Give them time to think, and you’ll be rewarded with higher quality and deeper responses.
Practice on your family and friends
Do you have friends that you want to alienate? Practicing interviewing with them, and they’ll run for the hills!
One of the first things I did when I started my PhD data collection was interview some close family members and friends. By making sure I was in a well-known environment with someone who knew and tolerated me, I could try out different interviewing techniques and ask for feedback on my conversation style and body language. Most importantly, I could practice wording my interview questions in such a way that the layperson could understand.
Watch successful interviewing and discussion forums
Before I started interviewing, I sat down and consciously watched some professional interviews on popular news broadcast programs. I carefully watched how the journalists conducted their interviews. What were they wearing? Where did they put their hands? Forum discussions like Q&A and Insight, for me, provided a great example of successful moderation techniques in a semi-structured environment. The hosts successfully played roles of facilitator rather than dictating conversation, and week-to-week drew out in-depth and varying responses from a wide range of people on different (sometimes sensitive) topics.
What better way to learn successful interviewing techniques than to watch a successful interview in action?
Be professional but make sure you’re comfortable
Wearing something comfortable during interviewing will ensure that you can sit for a long period of time and focus entirely on the interview process. However, this is not an excuse to bust out your old hoody and sweatpants! Dress smartly and comfortably – remember, you’re representing yourself and your institution.
This goes for the way you speak and hold yourself, too – how you phrase questions, and the sorts of filler material you provide, the language you use. Find a speech style that both you and your interviewee can fall into easily. For example, if your interviewee has a great sense of humour, you may find it appropriate to joke around before starting the interview. Depending on what it is you’re researching, however, joking may be inappropriate. I found it worked best when I followed the speech and conversation-style set by the interviewee.
Article by Kristyn Jackson.
Kristyn is passionate about marketing, research and well-being. Her research interests lie in transformative services marketing and co-creation. She tutors in consumer behaviour and services marketing. An APA scholarship student, she is a University Medallist (for her Honours thesis into non-profit marketing) and received Dean’s Excellence Awards for each semester of under-graduate study.
On the weekend she enjoys hiking, running and tea drinking (simultaneously). She has a bias for ‘slow’ fashion (as opposed to ‘fast’ fashion that is neither ecologically nor financially sustainable), and all things environmentally friendly and ethical. Follow Kristyn on ResearchGate or read her posts on PhD Peeps!