Interview conducting guide

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Tips and advice on carrying out interviews with people for articles, publications, books, etc.

Interviews can be a useful tool to aid publishing and media efforts. Think of them as an opportunity to get information you don't already know. It is a particularly useful way of relieving the pressure on people intensely involved in a particular struggle who don't have the time to report on their activities and perspectives.

You should research your subject first. It may be that your interviewee is a shop steward in a workplace on strike, or was active in the Miners Support Group in your town in the 1980s. Research this first so that you are sure you are asking appropriate questions. Leave them open - this means you should avoid questions that can be answered yes or no. An example:

Avoid: Did you support the printers at Wapping?
Instead use: How did you support the printers at Wapping?

The second example will lead into specific activities - and some of these may be particularly interesting. For example, Albert Meltzer, then a few years off retirement and active in the print-workers union, had his car "break down" in the road leading up to Wapping, thus blocking the scab lorries. Only the second approach would have revealed this. And of course, be prepared that your interview might go off on tangents! Interviewees will regularly say something you weren't expecting or need to know more about.

Try to put the interviewee at their ease. Be relaxed - someone is far more likely to say something interesting or new if they are feeling comfortable. You should also be careful about anything that might be incriminating or put others at risk.

There may be times when you are doing a hostile interview, or one with someone who you might be critical of (an anarchist who is standing for election, for example), be particularly probing on areas you think are weaknesses. However, don't let your criticisms derail the interview - if anything plan it so that the uncritical stuff comes first.

If interviewing someone in person, as opposed to by email it is a good idea to record it - particularly if it is one done on the spur of the moment. Unless you can do proper shorthand, you will find a dictaphone, tape-or digital recorder useful. You should get the interviewee to agree to be recorded. I once did an interview on a demo by scribbling it down on a pad but it's not a method I would recommend.

Interviews should be written up as they occurred and then use this as the basis for the final article to be published. Even a straight question and answer format will benefit from this. Think about whether the interview is for publication or for background research. A longer article can quote from the interview. The original transcript should be kept - both in case there are challenges to your reporting and as a part of general working class oral history. (The KSL, website below, would welcome such transcripts as an aid to research - see the oral history article).

Suitable people to interview include:
* Participants in specific struggles, past and present. This is particularly the case if you are writing an article about something in the past.
* People with expertise in an area of knowledge - e.g. an anarchist midwife about proposed changes to maternity wards, a railway engineer about a train crash, an ecologist about the impact of a new road.
* Political opponents - within specific struggles and possibly generally if there is a good angle.
I hope this has fired your interest in talking to people about their experiences and finding out more.

By Martin H , the Kate Sharpley Library