4 essential tools for great interviews

Let’s say you’re planning to build a deck on your house.  You’ve sketched out the deck’s exact dimensions, and you know how much lumber you’ll need.

What tools will you use to build it? Do you buy a nail gun, or do you use a hammer? Do you use two-penny nails or deck screws? And what’s the difference between pressure treated wood and a plain old two-by-four, anyway?

When you’re building something with your hands, the tools you use make a big difference. The same is true when conducting an interview.

The first step is creating your blueprint — drafting the questions that provide an accurate picture of the story and reveal the human aspect at its core. But even the best blueprints won’t help much if you don’t have the right tools for the job.

In this post, I’ll highlight the four main tools you need to interview like a pro. I’ll also describe my personal methods for each one.

Keep in mind that my suggestions aren’t iron-clad rules. Feel free to tinker with each one and find the method that works best for you.

Let’s get started. First, though, the usual disclaimer: I’m not getting paid to promote any products listed here. These are simply tools that I’ve found helpful.

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Tools of the trade

1. Notepads

Choosing your notepad may not seem like a critical decision. However, when you invest a good chunk of your day scribbling notes, the size and composition of your notepad make a big difference.

Types of notepads

Legal pads

You can get a lot of mileage out of one of these, and they’re widely available at most office supply stores. The larger pages also allow you to separate each page into different sections, if that’s part of your note-taking system.

Be aware that their large size might also be a liability. They don’t travel particularly well, and they can be difficult to use if you’re conducting interviews while standing.

Reporter’s notebooks

These slim little numbers travel well. They measure 4 inches wide by about 8 inches long, so they’re easy to slip into your jacket pocket or your pilot bag. Their small size makes it easy to write in when you’re on the go.

One downside: They’re a little difficult to find. However, you can buy them online in packages of 12 or so.

Also, because these notepads are small, they fill up fast. If you’re a prodigious note taker like I am, you’ll want to stock up. You can burn through one of these puppies quickly.

My pick: Stenographer’s pads

I buy steno pads by the handfuls. They’re big enough to hold several weeks’ worth of interviews, but they’re small enough to hold comfortably. Bonus: You can also find them at most stores where stationary is sold.

2. Writing utensils

Like notepads, pens and pencils are a small detail that make a big difference. When you’re taking quotes, you have to write fast. You don’t want a pen that drags or a pencil that easily breaks.

This is the one area where I’ve noticed reporters get particularly finicky. Some swear on red felt-tip pens, whereas others use only mechanical pencils. Again, go with what feels right to you.

Types of writing utensils

Pencils

Pencils don’t bleed when wet, making them a great choice for sports reporters and other professionals who spend a lot of time outdoors. If you get rained on, you don’t have to worry about your interview notes looking like a tear-stained Dear John letter.

Stick with mechanical pencils, though. They never dull, meaning you won’t have to pause mid-interview to ask your source if he has a pencil sharpener.

Felt-tip pens

Felt-tip pens yield their ink easily, so you don’t have to press down on them to make a good, clear mark on the page. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to take notes and feeling like you have to emboss the page just to make the ink flow.

On the downside, these do tend to drag, so they could slow down your writing. This is a liability when you’re interviewing fast talkers.

My pick: Ballpoint pens

A good ballpoint pen will glide easily on the page without smearing ink everywhere. It took me a long time to find a brand I like, but now I buy it religiously.

3. Voice recorder

The average English speaker in America utters about 150 words a minute. That’s a lot to process at once, especially when you’re trying to keep all the facts, figures and spellings straight.

That’s why I like to use a voice recorder during interviews. It allows me to focus more on the interview itself and less on trying to frantically scribble notes. Once the interview is done, I can review the recording to verify quotes. I’ve also found that I get a deeper understanding of the subject on a second listening.

This is one area where it’s worth putting down some cash. Good recorders aren’t cheap, and cheap recorders aren’t good.

Here’s what to look for in a high-quality voice recorder:

  • Stop, pause, fast-forward and rewind functions.
  • Variable playback speeds, which allow you to slow down the recording for easier transcription.
  • At least four hours of recording time. It may seem like a lot, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can use it up.
  • Lock functions to prevent you from accidentally deleting important files.
  • Indexing function. This allows you to set an index, or bookmark, at important parts of the file.
  • Built-in USB plug to allow for easy file transfer to a computer.

I’d recommend investing in an Olympus digital voice recorder.  They’re quite pricey, but mine has lasted me for years without any problems.

A word of caution

Voice recorders, like any digital device, can fail. They’re a good safety net, but they’re no replacement for a hard copy.

Be sure to always take notes even when your recorder is running. And, do make sure it’s running. If I had a quarter for every time I forgot to hit the “record” button at the start of an interview, I’d have a bungalow on the beach by now.

Also, be sure to let the source know that you’re recording the conversation. I say something like, “I use a voice recorder to verify quotes. Do you mind if I use it in this interview?” I’ve never had anyone tell me no.

4. Sticky notes

Sticky notes will save your sanity. I use the small ones — 1-3/8 inches by 1-7/8 inches — to index my notebooks. It saves me a lot of time I would have otherwise spent frantically flipping through my notes, trying to find a particular interview on deadline.

On each sticky note, I write:

  • The source’s first and last name,
  • The source’s title, and
  • The date of the interview.

I place the sticky note on the first page of the interview notes, making sure the edge of the sticky note sticks out like a tab. Then, I clip the rest of the notes from the interview together with a paper clip. This allows me to quickly flip through multiple interviews.

Your turn

Loved it? Hated it? Let me know in the comments. Also, share any special tools and tricks you use for conducting interviews.

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