Interviewing Tips: Best Practices & Bad Habits: Home

How to conduct an interview or oral history for the purposes of research and recording in the Digital Scholarship Lab

Who, What, Where, When, Why & How?

WHO: Robert Nelson. Since 1988 Nelson has been a deejay on local community radio station KRCL 90.9FM. From 2003-2012 he conducted political interviews on the station's Radioactive listener call-in program. He performed more than 400 hour long interviews with local, national and international guests such as Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Rocky Anderson, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein to name a few. 

WHAT: How to conduct and/or record an interview or oral history: preparation for the interview, the pre-interview, best practices and bad habits to avoid.  

WHERE: The Marriott Library has created a brand new, state of the art Audio Studio. This Studio space has a ProTools console and microphones to record, edit and podcast audio projects. This Studio space is housed in the Digital Scholarship Lab which is located in the Faculty Center on Level 1 of the Marriott Library. Its location is in the space formerly occupied by the Multi Media Center: West/Bookstore entrance; across from the Library Café. Marriott Library Level 1 Map 

WHEN: You can arrange a time with Robert to plan, conceive and perform your recorded interview. Contact him for information on how to do this. 

WHY: In conducting research, it can become necessary to undertake interviews of individuals or groups. No one really shows students or researchers *how* to do this formally or informally in the Classroom. This LibGuide endeavors to direct and instruct students/researchers in the ideal way to perform and direct an interview.

HOW: You will be trained and/or given assistance in how to record an interview, or other audio project. This will include the ability to edit soundfiles and convert them, if needed, to .mp3 file format for podcasting. 

Best Practices


You are ultimately responsible for the quality of the finished interview product. It is incumbent that you be prepared. The time spent familiarizing yourself with your interview subject is important to establish a connection with your guest(s). You are in control and must be responsible for guiding and encouraging the best responses in your dialogue.  If you will be using the Marriott Library's Audio Studio, follow these guidelines:

  1. You should arrive at least 15 minutes before your guest
    1. Make sure a Staff person can let you into the Audio Studio. (Most projects you will be working with Robert as session Sound Engineer.)
    2. Greet your guest; explain to them what you’re going to do. Make them feel comfortable, get a mic check from your guest (many people are quiet talkers and you want to establish a par between your voice and theirs on the final sound project.) Another insight: oftentimes people are intimidated by the microphone and will tend to speak from too far away for their voice to be audible. A good practice is to establish a hand signal to ask them to speak closer to the microphone. 

            2. Don't have time or the ability to record in the Marriott's Audio Studio? Use the Voice Memo type feature on smart phones to record your interview. Or invest in a portable digital recorder. Electronics stores sell models for less than $100. Recording the interview is preferable to taking notes. It is hard to write and actively listen at the same time. Active listening can prompt follow up lines of questioning that might deviate from your scripted questions.


If you are recording this for podcasting: Introduce yourself. It is then customary to read a short prepared introduction to the topic. Give the credentials of your guest. Welcome your guest and let the interview begin… 

  1. One of the most important components of your interview preparation should include a list of between 3-5 written questions. These questions are how you will interact with your guest. Prepared questions can be helpful if you need to move the interview into new topics or to fill a lull in the conversation.
  2. How you ask your questions can make a difference in the type of responses you receive from your guest. You want to avoid asking “leading” questions or questions that can be answered by a simple “yes” or “no” response.  
  3.  Leading questions are the type of query posed that presupposes the answer in the question itself “Would you agree that Congress has to do a better job in XYZ”. You have already established your viewpoint on the topic and are expecting affirmation from your guest to YOUR frame of reference. This line of questioning is considered poor form and can make for a dull, listless interview. 
  4. As you noticed in the introduction to this help guide: The best rule of thumb is to ask your question(s) beginning: 
  • “Who” 
  • “What” 
  • “Where” 
  • "When” 
  • "Why" or
  • “How”.

This negates the simple one word “yes” or “no” response and is meant to prompt your guest into elaboration in his/her response. “How did it feel to win the Nobel Prize?”; “What is the mission statement of your organization?”; “Where and/or when did this event take place?”; “Why did you take the course of action that you did?” "Who are your sponsors?"

  1. A fall back on just about any conversation is to ask, "How did/does *** make you feel?"

Often you develop other lines of questioning based on the response of your guest. This line of questioning is where you can glean the best information as your guest is allowed to elaborate on their experience or expertise. This is the number one best practice in interviews: your preparation in composing the question coupled with the information given by your guest’s response. You are the conductor; your guest is the orchestra.

Bad Habits


Interrupting your guest


                                                               i.      It is considered bad form to interrupt or talk over your guest as they are speaking on a topic. One of the biggest distractions in interviews is the interviewer who asks a question and then cuts in on his/her guest as they formulate a response. It disrupts the flow and stifles the reasoning behind the interview. Any podcast listener will become frustrated and distracted if such interruptions occur too frequently. Same goes in interviews that won't be re-broadcast.


Ask your question, get out of the way, then, through active listening, pick your spot to go to the next question or follow up.


                                                             ii.      The key to a good interview is to walk a line between asking your question and then remain quiet as you listen to the response. This is good "active listening". However, you are in control of the interview and should not let your guest tend to ramble or become repetitive.


If you want to move on, break in with a statement like, “let’s move on to another topic” or “I hate to interrupt, but let me ask you this”.


                                    iii. Cues to watch for: Your guest starts to ramble, repeat themself, engage in "ands or "umms" or breaks eye contact with you. Those are cues that they are "done" answering your question but are too polite to quit speaking. Your job is "traffic control". Either follow up on the line of questioning or move the conversation forward with your next written question.


“And um” and other “gap filling” comments


                                                            iii.      Watch any sports interview and you will be inundated with “ands”, “umms”, “y’knows”. The reason this happens is that people have a tendency to want to fill gaps of silence as they are thinking on their response. This is one of the most difficult “bad habits” to overcome in interviews. If you are trying to formulate your next vocalization, do not be afraid to allow for short pauses as you ponder.


Too much silence is “dead air” (an unusually long gap of silence on a radio broadcast). A short interval of silence is preferable to auditory “and, uh” type filler.


Longer gaps or mistakes can usually be edited out of the raw sound file as you prepare your podcast.


Compound Questions


                                                           iv.      Avoid compound questions. Often, you will be so prepared and you want to talk about so many topics. That can lead to the tendency to ask multi-part questions. Try not to do this. Example, “Why should Congress reform healthcare AND what are the advantages, costs, etc”. This can tend to overwhelm your guest and make for incomplete or confused answers.


Keep your questions tight and snappy. Wait for your moment to follow up after your guest is through with his/her reply. Questions don't have to be "fancy"or complex to be effective.



Ass't Head of Creativity & Innovation Services - Media Studios

Robert Nelson's picture
Robert Nelson
1075 P Marriott Library

University of Utah

295 South 1500 East DOC

Salt Lake City, Utah 84112

Tel: (801) 581-5228

Spring Semester 2018 Office Hours

Tuesdays 11am til 1pm

1705 P - Faculty Center - Marriott Library (Level 1)

Need help? Contact the Marriott Library.

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