I have been thinking about interviews and how to ask better questions/interview for a while. Research questions unpack what is going on with the world around us. As an early career scholar, I want to unpack experiences, thoughts, and situations people are dealing with in the workplace (e.g. networked professional lives, open online learning, mentoring relationships) to learn more about a particular phenomenon. I know good research comes from solid research preparation.
Last summer I spent a couple of months, with my co-investigator Paul, digging into the empirical literature, academic findings, theoretical frameworks and debates around concepts and issues we want to unpack in our study. I appreciate his willingness to work and put the time up-front to prepare for our research interviews.
“Research designs begins with questions researchers and their partners want to answer about a particular problem, population, process, project, or topic they want to explore” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010, p. 130).
We framed our research questions around issues addressed in other academic papers — you know, building on the shoulders of giants — and to unpack what is happening in the online and offline realm for higher education professionals. For our semi-structured interviews, we have a set of structured questions to guide open-ended discussions on relevant topics related to the themes, issues, and concepts we want to discuss (Kvale, 2007). By using the intensive interview techniques shared in Charmaz’s (2014) constructing grounded theory text, most of our questions are open-ended. This method was designed to encourage participants to reflect and share experiences, by starting questions with: “Tell me about…”, “Could you describe… or “Can you walk me through…” Asking research questions to solicit for a comprehensive and an open response is everything.
This research design thinking not only developed our interview protocols, research questions, and data management plan, it also allows us to be fully immersed in our conversations while we conduct the interview now. I think conducting a quality research interview is a skill. A skill that gets developed, honed and enhanced as you go. I always learn how to improve upon this each time I talk with a research participant. While being immersed in the interviews, I have kept this sage advice George (thanks!) offered when we were conducting interviews with a large number of open, online learners:
Give wait time to think before answering and tell them that you are doing that.
Listen to their replies and ask probing questions that aren’t listed below but go toward the issues we are trying to explore.
Now that we’re 60+ interviews deep with our project, I continue to think about this advice and understand what we are learning so far. I am also thinking about what we are asking, how we are approaching topics, and identifying where we might need to go as our questions reach a certain saturation point. If you have already graciously volunteered your time and shared for our study: THANK YOU SO MUCH! If you are a higher education professional who would like to contribute and be interviewed for our research, we are still accepting participants for our study here: http://bit.ly/networkedself
UPDATED: Friday, August 11, 2017
R.I.P. #Turnaroundpod — it’s sad to hear that your podcast series is coming to a close. THANKS SO MUCH for producing The Turnaround Podcast, Jesse. It will be sad to see you go! Want to read more about this? Check out the Ask Me Anything (AMA) of Jesse Thorn on Reddit.
Recently, I started listening to Jesse Thorn’s The Turnaround podcast (that partners with the Columbia Journalism Review -thanks for the transcripts!) This podcast flips the script and interviews people who typically interview others.
Image c/o The Turnaround! a Maximum Fun Production
These interviews unpack the art form of an interview and how to best investigate a story. Thorn asks how to best interview and also demonstrates how to summarize ideas and follow with an open-ended question for a response. Although most of these interviewers are producing interviews for public consumption and listening, there are some great takeaways from this 1:1 series about interviewing:
- Introduce Yourself, But FOCUS ON THEIR STORY: NPR’s Audie Cornish tries to focus on the story/investigation first, not herself or her feelings: “It’s not about me.”
- Think About THE QUESTIONS You Could Ask to Learn About ________: This American Life’s Ira Glass always wants to know what is that story or idea: “Think about what the other person is feeling… an active act of imagination and empathy.” Also, preparing for an interview helps to be in the moment and “listen very closely to what they’re saying without having to anticipate and hold in my mind what the next question will be,” says Brooke Gladstone.
- BE AWARE of the Structure of Your Interview & the RISKS and REWARDS of Asking the Questions: Consider the Anna Sale discusses the tension of asking the interview questions and being sensitive to the feelings of the person you are interviewing: “…the hardest part in structuring interviews and interview questions is how do you both: protect the relationship with the person that you’re talking to and make sure you’re not wimping out…“
- Pick a CONVENIENT LOCATION to Chat for the Professional: Comedian and podcaster, Marc Maron, invites his guests into his “space” (actual physical home) to encourage openness in sharing an intimate conversation with him. If the interview is conducted by phone, Skype or at a distance, there is still a form of intimacy (says Terry Gross) as you have this conversation in your earbud, in your head, and 1:1.
- GIVE WAIT TIME For Responses. Shut up and Let People Think/Talk: Documentarian/Filmmaker Errol Morris said to shut up and let people talk, you will learn more. Another documentarian, Louis Theroux agrees and asks a question and gives space for people to respond: “Actually it’s more about asking a really simple question and giving people the space to answer it.“
- Being an INSIDER Helps Interviews OR just be REAL & have a DIALOGUE in an Interview: It is sometimes helpful to be an “insider” for the people you are interviewing. For Reggie Ossé his experiences in the hip hop industry have encouraged his interview guests to open up: “I think the reason why they do is because they don’t view me as an outsider, or a shock jock that’s trying to find red meat on them. I really want to have a dialogue with these people.” Additionally, if it feels like a conversation, people will just open up and respond fully to interview questions.
- Be AUTHENTIC & INTERESTED In the Interview Responses: Be invested and interested during the interview process. Katie Couric shares how she cares about what people are saying during an interview and does her best to be real: “Because, even back then, before authenticity became such a buzz word, I think people responded to someone who seemed to be their authentic self on television.“
- Be Sure To TAKE NOTES: Author Susan Orlean says to treat this like an authentic conversation and be a good listener, that is, be okay with awkward silences), be in the moment, and take notes by hand + record [She uses Livescribe smartpen & Neo smartpen.]
- ASK FOR EXAMPLES to Learn More About _______: Jesse and Ira both gush Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, who is a skilled interviewer. Terry puts herself inside her interviewee’s head to ask for follow-up responses by asking: “Can you give me an example?” Her book: All I Did Was Ask
- Be an ACTIVE LISTENER: Jerry Springer said that listening is key as none of his guests felt like they have every really been heard: “…it’s pretty exciting that once in their life someone is paying attention to what they’re saying.” People want to be heard. Be that great listener they may not have in their life for your interview.
- COLLABORATE or PARTNER with Other People for the Interview: If you bring a friend or have a colleague who is interested in a topic, person, or issue — bring them along. Terry Gross shared that she values having another person listen (her producer or associate producer) to her interviews. Another person listening to your interview process is hearing things in a different way. This collaborator/partner for the interview will interpret both questions and responses, so they might hear gaps in questions, understanding of the topic, or provide another insight into the investigation/interview.
In addition to listening to podcasts or reading scholarly books about interviews, I thank and credit the @BreakDrink podcast production for providing me with the skills to conduct effective research. My “study” in podcasting (and research interviews) began just over 7 years when I received a DM from Jeff Jackson to see if I’d like to co-host a podcast. Although I was just starting my Ph.D. program, I think some of my early lessons for qualitative research actually came from the episodes where we invited brilliant people onto the Campus Tech Connection (#CTCX) podcast for an interview. Both my experience with podcast production and research interviews, have offered me a few insights for being a more effective interviewer:
- Pre-Interview survey: Ask your podcast guest or interview participant a few questions about the topic in advance. For podcasts, we would have them complete a brief bio and see a few of the questions we might ask ahead of time. For interviews, we might have a pre-questionnaire or interview sign-up with requests for demographic information, topics about the research, or their role for the study research.
- Organize and prepare: Do you work in advance! Create a shared doc (if on a collaborative team) or prep notes for each show production or segment of your research interviews. This would include the potential protocols, research questions, interview topics/issues, and information you would need for each recording. Review the pre-interview survey data and see how they might relate to your research questions.
- Play with the technology to figure out what works for you: Technical tools have changed over the past 7 years of my podcasting/researching. I continue to learn as I go and as I collaborate with others. I now record with Audio Hijack+Skype/web conference/phone, edit in GarageBand/Audacity by splicing clips either for public consumption or to minimize for transcription costs, and find a secure cloud storage space for your audio files and notes.
- Speaking of notes… ALWAYS TAKE NOTES: Besides recording the audio, I often scribe notes during a conversation or interview. These notes could include a quote, key point, idea, or issue. For the podcast, this might include a URLs and resources we would share with the show notes with the episode. For research, this ensured I was listening and noting what participants were saying and often it would spark a follow-up question or explore another aspect of our study I wanted to know about. Pro-Tip: I use “analog” journals to write my research notes with pen and paper. I often return to my notes to make an annotation, highlight a concept, find another research question, and to review how the series of interviews are progressing.
- Make time for reflection: After each episode of the podcast, I often would have a follow-up blog post with information and ideas shared. This practice I still do when I conduct a research interview, but often it’s a private act scribed in my journal or shared with my co-collaborators on a project. This habit has me process what I am exploring, learning, and sorting out in my head.
- Manage and archive your files: Be sure you create a system to label and itemize your digital files and notes. I am meticulous for organizing my life and projects (as I live in the digital) in particular ways. Set your own system so you can track where items are and code how these files/interviews are relevant to your project (or podcast). This will help you later when you go to code transcripts or you are interested in a particular issue/trend in your study.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kvale, S. (2007). Doing interviews. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (1999). Designing and conducting ethnographic research (Vol. 1), 2nd Edition. Plymouth, UK: Altamira Press.
1 thought on “Research, Interviews, and Asking Good Questions”