Quick Tips: Interviewing
With adequate preparation, interviews can be an especially effective tool for capturing tacit knowledge. First and foremost, it is essential to approach an interview with absolute clarity on the specific information you seek. Conducting background research is critical to understanding your subject’s unique experiences and expertise and to developing a narrative to guide the interview/questions. Look at resumes, biographies, and bodies of work. Talk to colleagues and associates. This preparation is key to asking the pointed questions necessary to elicit tacit knowledge—knowledge that feels so intuitive it is often not articulated without targeted probing.
It is equally important to help your interviewee prepare. Brief them on the purpose of the interview and provide questions in advance. Do a pre-interview check in.
Warm up questions are easy, general questions to help build rapport and give the interviewee time to get comfortable. Be sure to recognize important accomplishments. People tend to feel more comfortable talking about themselves, and this investment at the beginning of the interview will pay off later.
- Where did you grow up?
- Where did you go to school?
- How did you get started in conservation work?
- What do you consider the high point of your career?
- What was the biggest challenge in that?
- How did you overcome it?
- You’re also recognized for [specific accomplishment]. Can you share any insights or aha moments from that experience to help others doing similar work?
- Why was that important?
- How did you discover that?
Of course, not everyone is comfortable talking about themselves. If this is the case, it could be helpful to ask less direct questions that don’t put them on center stage up front. For example, “what’s the most valuable piece of conservation advice you received along the way?” “Why was it important?”
These are more specific questions aimed at getting to the specific information you seek to capture. While these sample questions are a good starting point, latching on to the responses and probing for specifics is vital to eliciting tacit knowledge. Be persistent. Ask how, why, what do you mean until you get to the root of the issue.
- What were your 2-3 biggest successes?
- Why was it a success?
- Who made it a success?
- How did that person become involved?
- What other factors were key to success?
- What was the biggest roadblock?
- When did you realize how important that was?
- How did you overcome it?
- What were your 2-3 biggest disappointments?
- What went wrong?
- How/why did that happen?
- How did you deal with it?
- If you could do it over, what would you do differently?
- Can you tell me how you cultivate and nurture effective relationships?
- How do you repair a relationship that has gone off track?
- What 2-3 things have you learned over your career that would have been most useful to know at the onset?
- Did you discover that on your own? If so, how? If not, who did you learn it from and what was the situation?
- How do you cultivate that knowledge/ability in others?
- What do you see as the biggest blind spot for people coming into community-based conservation?
- What do you do to help people overcome that?
These questions allow the interviewee to summarize their main points.
- What advice would you give to a younger you?
- What advice would you give to your successor?
- What haven’t we discussed that you feel would be most helpful to others working in this field?
- Don’t wing it. Use a cheat sheet with tailored questions written down. But be flexible and follow the interesting and relevant story lines to the what, the why, and the how.
- Be inquisitive, but keep questions short and ask only one question at a time.
- Get reluctant story tellers talking about subjects with which they are comfortable.
- Keep them talking – about anything – until the relevant stories and insights emerge.
- Start with open-ended questions. If you jump into specifics too quickly, you may miss the bigger picture.
- Don’t ask leading questions. When you try to lead your subject, you risk alienating them, or missing the key point they wanted to make.
- Consider doing interviews without a camera for people who may be inhibited when they are being filmed.