Even when interviewing a polar bear, you should be using proper interviewing techniques. Photo courtesy of ItzaFineDay. Licensed under CC BY-2.0.Sometime in your college career, you will more than likely have to perform some kind of interview (like this awesome interview Sean did with Tim Ferriss). You might do them weekly for the newspaper, for a specific assignment for a class, or for gathering information on a research topic. Whatever the case may be, there are certain interviewing guidelines that everyone should be aware of before even arranging a meeting. Follow these rules, and your resulting piece will show it. Additionally, good interviews might help you make contacts for the future.

Making Contact

First impressions can make or break an interview. Get off on the right foot by making contact in the right way. It’s always best to contact a person you want to interview by phone, especially if you’ve never met them before. This way, you can get an answer from them immediately if they’ll be available to interview. If you contact the person by email, you will have to compete with the many other emails that person receives. However, the tricky part about contacting a person on the phone is that they might have time to be interviewed right when you call. Therefore, it is extremely, extremely important that you have your interview questions ready to go when you call to set up the interview.

Make sure that you properly introduce yourself and clearly state your purpose. Most people are very willing to talk to college students for assignments, especially if it’s something that they’re an expert on. They will most likely be flattered and help you in any way they can.

Dress Properly

This might not seem like such a big deal if you’re just interviewing some of your friends or classmates around campus for a random assignment, but you should always be aware of what you wear and what that says to other people. My journalism professor says to never wear anything that would alienate yourself from the person you’re to interview. Don’t wear anything with a sorority/fraternity association, sports team, etc, etc. This may seem extreme, but as soon as we meet people, we begin to make mental images of them in our head. The answers that the person you’re interviewing gives depend on how open you seem to them.

For more important interviews, like those of business professionals or other people who you haven’t met, you will need to dress up. If you look like a slob, they will not take you seriously. It will reflect in your interview, the answers you get, and the piece that you write afterwards.

Be On Time

By “on time,” I mean be ten to fifteen minutes early. You are on their time. They are the ones taking the time out of their day to help you with an assignment. Being late hurts your interview big time. First of all, it eats up the chunk of time that you have to work with. Second, it just gets the interview off to a bad start. Third, it makes you look unprofessional, and it will be an instant turn off to the person you’re talking with.


This obviously seems like a no-brainer. However, I think that there are a surprising amount of interviewers who ask questions and jot down some notes without really listening or caring what the other person is saying. Sometimes assignments you have to do are really boring and you just don’t give a damn. But it is important to at least pretend that you care about what the person you’re interviewing is saying. The way you respond to their answers, either by nodding, commenting on their answers, or asking follow up questions, will encourage them to open up more and perhaps even give you a more interesting angle on the story.

Taking Notes

There are several different approaches for taking notes during an interview. For short, informational interviews where you don’t need direct quotes, you should be okay by just taking notes in a notepad by hand. However, when direct quotes are necessary, things get a little trickier. Some people, I have noticed, opt for using their laptops. As great as they are for taking notes and writing down stuff fast as the other person is talking, it puts this unfriendly barrier between you and the other person. The clicking of keys is extremely distracting, and instead of listening to what they’re saying, you’re concentrating on typing it.

A nice alternative is using a recorder. Your school Communication or Journalism department might have some that you can rent out for a period of time. However, if you have an iPhone, I downloaded a fantastic app that works perfectly for interviews. It’s called QuickVoice and it’s free. I used it to record an interview with a professor on Tuesday morning and it was flawless. It doesn’t do much else than record, but in an interview, that’s really all you need. There have been complaints in reviews that the app has the tendency to crash randomly, so my suggestion is to email yourself the recordings as soon as you get done with them to prevent any loss of valuable interviews.

Even if you are using a recording device, you should take some notes by hand as well. You never know when technology will fail and leave you without any recording of your interview. The most important thing is to be engaging enough with your interviewee so that they are able to trust you and give you good answers to your questions.

Do you have any other tips for conducting a great interview? Let us know in the comments!