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Conducting the Information Interview

Module 3: Selecting Interviewees

2 people talking about selecting interviewees

Stage 3: Selecting Interviewees.

You need to select interviews with care, keeping in mind the purpose of your research. What do you need to know? Who has that information?

In choosing interviewees, ask these four questions:

  1. Does the person have the information I need?

    How accurate your final report is depends in part on your interviewee's level of expertise. For example, if you were interested in identifying the skills high school students need to successfully perform in college, whom would you interview? High school students? Probably not an effective choice as they haven't yet experienced college life. College students, university and high school counselors, and college faculty teaching freshman courses are better choices.

    Often, interviewees will answer a question even if they don't have the knowledge to provide an accurate response. This is to save face and be polite. That is, we want to appear intelligent and knowledgeable to others, we also want to cooperate and help out. As explained in Module 2, conducting research on your interviewees as well as your topic is part of effective informational interviewing. Researching interviewees will help you determine if the individuals you've chosen have the information you need.

  2. Is the person available for an interview?

    This seems like an obvious question. However, there are strategies you can use to increase the chance that an interviewee is available. First, approach the interviewee from a positive standpoint, assuming that she or he will have time to talk with you. Most people are flattered by the attention and are willing to participate in an information interview, particularly if they know you're a student. Second, use your contacts. If a friend of yours works for a company in which you want to interview the CEO, ask your friend to help guide you through the channels to set up the interview. Third, chose a location that is comfortable for the interviewee. People are generally much more willing to participate in an information interview if the setting is a comfortable and familiar one.

  3. Will the person provide me with the information I need?

    Just because someone has the information you need doesn't mean she or he will reveal that information to you. This is where your credibility is important. You can enhance your credibility by:

    • doing your homework on the topic (Module 2)
    • doing your homework on the interviewee (Module 2)
    • enlisting the assistance of contacts known to you and the interviewee (see item 2 above)
    • carefully preparing for the interview (Module 4)
    • using active listening and demonstrating sensitivity to the interviewee's cultural background (Module 5)

    At times, you may have to put your persuasive powers to work. However, take care with threatening statements that may cause the interviewee to abruptly end the interview. You might try tactics such as:

    • "I've already interviewed several others who don't share your position on the topic. I want to be sure your view is heard as well."
    • "Without information from you, the story will be incomplete."
    • "Although I've talked with others about this topic, I was told that you are the authority."

    Sometime ago, a reporter for a small local newspaper talked with my interviewing students about effectively conducting the information interview. He said, "Don't be afraid to look stupid." The reporter explained that interviewees were much more willing to divulge information when they appeared more knowledgeable on the subject than he was. That is, a certain degree of humbleness can go a long way in eliciting information from others. Of course, you still need to research your topic and interviewee before the interview. However, you don't want to appear to be a "know-it-all." The interviewee may then wonder why the interview is even necessary.

  4. Can the person freely and accurately transmit the information to me?

    Interviewees may have the information you need, be available for the interview, and be willing to provide the information, yet still have difficulties communicating that information to you. This may be due to a number of reasons, such as communication reticence, faulty assumptions, hidden agendas, or poor health. Conducting previous research on the interviewee provides a way for you to get to know the person and plan ahead for possible problems. Preparing for the interview can help you develop questions that will make it easier for interviewees to participate in the interview.

In conducting the information interview, you may select interviewees before you start researching your topic (and interviewees), as you are researching your topic, or after you research your topic. That is, you may decide you want to interview a particular person, and then gather information about that individual to identify the main topics you want to cover in the interview. Or, as you are researching your topic, you may find someone who could elaborate on that topic. Finally, after completing the research on your topic, you may then generate a list of potential interviewees. Whatever order interviewees enter the information interview process, you need to address the questions listed above.

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