Zen Master Interview Skills

As transcribers we listen to literally thousands of interviews over the course of our careers. We have the privilege of hearing respondents’ views on a vast array of subjects, and of learning about things we had never heard of before. Part of the enjoyment of the job for us is the variety of material that we hear, all of which teaches us something and broadens our view of the world.

Really top-notch transcription requires the accurate capture of what we actually hear, rather than what we expect to hear or what we might think we hear. This principle also applies in portraiture; a faithful image requires the artist to exercise acute observation. With time and experience, transcribers’ listening skills are honed to pin-sharp accuracy.

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The most important participant in any interview is of course the respondent whose views or knowledge are elicited. The contribution of the interviewer can be easy to overlook; after all, they’re just asking prearranged questions, right? How hard can it be?

Any experienced transcriber will smile at this question. In our work we hear interviewers and questions of all kinds. The vast majority of the interviewers that we hear are skilful and produce good results. Even among these, though, some interviewers stand out for the sheer excellence of their work. Interviews conducted by these people feel completely smooth and natural. Their respondents are relaxed and open up easily, sometimes to surprising degrees. Perhaps interviewing skills of this calibre may come naturally to some people; certainly, skills like these can be learnt and cultivated by all of us.

To do so is worthwhile; these are interviewers who draw out the full richness of what their respondents have to share, whose transcripts contain the fewest number of unclear words and who derive full value from their own and their respondents’ time. The content of these interviews are also the most interesting to listen to, regardless of the subject matter.

For an excellent interview:

  • Warm up your respondent by starting with some simple factual questions to which they know the answers very well. This will get them used to speaking to you and soothe any anxiety they are feeling about being interviewed.
  • Keep questions as clear and simple as possible.
  • Always ask open questions, beginning with what, why, when, how, rather than questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  • Make notes as you go of points to be clarified. Never be afraid to say, ‘You said such-and-such; what do you mean by that?’
  • Never interrupt your respondent unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.
  • Remember your microphone; moving papers around will register at the same volume as speech!

For an exceptionally good interview:

  • Stay present as your respondent is speaking. Listen attentively. On some unconscious level we know instinctively when someone is really attending to what we are saying, even if we can’t see them. This practice requires a lot of concentration, but pays dividends.
  • Never ask a question hoping for a particular answer. Again, respondents will instinctively pick this up. I have heard more than one respondent tell their interviewer, ‘I feel as though you’re hoping for a certain answer to this question.’
  • Let the respondent complete their answer fully before you speak. Humans can feel the difference between someone waiting for us to finish so that they can speak, and someone who is hearing us.
  • Keep a friendly but unemotional tone and refrain from judging the content of your respondent’s answers.
  • Stay present as your respondent is speaking; never try to multitask! As transcribers we are acutely aware when someone is clicking on a webpage, writing, tidying their desk, etc., and if we hear it, so does the respondent.
  • Silence is golden. A nervous interviewer can feel tempted to keep offering validation to the respondent, or to keep reassuring them that they are listening, by saying things like, ‘Yes. Mm. Mm. Yes. Yes’ while the respondent is speaking. This is not necessary and the interviewer’s assurances of his or her attention will drown out the respondent’s answers in the mic.
  • Approach each interview with genuine curiosity. There is no such thing as a boring human being, and sincere curiosity communicates itself on unspoken levels.

Blog by

Helen Roberts – McGowan Transcriptions