Posts Tagged ‘family history’

So you’ve found your perfect interviewee, the world authority on something you’d like to learn about. This may be for a magazine or newspaper feature – with its inevitable deadline and requirement for accuracy. Or this conversation may be the last chance you have to ask your grandfather about his childhood. (He’s the world authority on that, after all.)

Whatever its purpose, the journalist’s tool of ‘the interview’ promises to give you all the material you need. But the human ear is fallible. What if you mishear or misinterpret what is being said? What if, in the excitement of the moment, you miss the main point?

The solution could be to record your conversation.

There are advantages. If, as a freelance writer, for example, you are working on several projects at once, having a clear recording plus a note of name spellings etc is invaluable. And, if you don’t keep your projects separate, there is always the clear and present danger of misremembering and mixing up.

Recording an interview can save you from the embarassment of going back to the interviewee with further questions. And, as a journalist, you don’t want to do this. Given this sort of opportunity, interviewees have been known to change their minds not only about what they want to say but also about whether they want to be interviewed at all. You can imagine the wasted time and effort this represents.

So what sort of recording is best? Digital recordings are much more reliable than the old-fashioned tapes used to be. It used to be the case that one technical hitch and you were scuppered. Now you can also find recorders that filter out background noise – useful if you are obliged to interview Grandad on a hospital ward. And, being a belt and braces sort of journalist, I would never rely solely on recordings. I would always take my own notes as well.

Some digital recording systems provide you with e-formatted transcriptions of the conversation. But make sure you read the tin! Some can only transcribe one voice, having been trained to recognise this. Most involve training of some sort, and some also involve discouraging cost. And remember this is at best only the starting point.

The next step – transcribing the recorded conversation – can seem difficult, time-consuming and hard work. I know it is. When I was a cub reporter, as a matter of course, I had to transcribe my own interviews.

However there are several benefits in doing this.

Firstly, when I had to do it regularly, I could hear the sub-text quite clearly in the tone and inflection of the interviewee. This sub-text may not be obvious from a set of notes – hastily scribbled, probably distracted by traffic, rain and other delights. Secondly, over time, you get quicker – developing your own shorthand.

But, the main advantage of having a digital recording – which, as you must inform your interviewee, is part of the deal – plus your own transcription is the freedom and vitality these gain for you.

Some people swear by the email interview. This, they say, gives the interviewee flexibility. The interviewee can answer as many questions (of, say,10) as s/he wants, when s/he wants. ‘Lots of material, without pressure, and with no follow-up calls or emails necessary.’ A further advantage of this, they say, is that you receive the material in e-text.

But, in my view, for this to succeed without losing that all-precious vitality, the interviewee must be:


vAble to write concise, accurate copy.

And your questions must be incisive and based on a broad and deep knowledge of the subject.

Email interviews may on the surface seem an easier route. But you could find yourself doing much more research and reading to arrive at the answers you, your editor and your readers need – questionable savings in time and effort.

And could Grandad, in his hospital bed, be bothered to answer an email? Would he not sooner talk to you? And you to him?

Personally, I commend the belt and braces of notebook and digital recorder.

















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