Lessons from elite interviews

This past week, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with three of my classmates to conduct elite interviews with U.S. government agency officials and NGOs to learn more about the nexus of wildlife crime and U.S. national security. This week was a learning experience in so many ways, and I thought I would share a bit of that with you all.

Here are six pieces of advice for elite interviews:

  1. Come with a plan.

Our meetings were generally an hour long. We had three areas of questions that we wanted to ask during these interview: general, case study specific, and policy options. We developed a plan for our interviews including introduction, question time, and a conclusion. Having this plan made our interviews flow easily from section to section. We determined before each meeting who was going to do the introduction and conclusion. This ensured that we were not just staring at each other waiting for someone to step in. Having everything written down saved us from leaving out an important detail from our introduction or conclusion.

  1. Know your stuff.

At the beginning of each interview, we would introduce ourselves and then take a moment to introduce our project and what we were hoping to get out of this interview. After our introduction, the person/s that we were meeting with usually took the time to ask us some questions. With their inquiries, I sensed that they were not only asking clarification questions, but taking a moment to gauge whether or not we knew what we were talking about. One of my biggest concerns going into this trip was that I did not want to waste the time of those who agreed to meet with us. This question portion of the interview was our time to show them that we knew what we were talking about. Throughout the week, I learned to anticipate certain questions, and also grew confident in my own abilities to answer their questions. We learned that in order to properly do these interviews, we needed to know our stuff, or we would not get any valuable information from them.

  1. Use your time wisely.

Depending on the interview and the interviewee, we learned how to direct the conversation. Some meetings were a little more background and informational, with an emphasis on conversation and elaboration. Some meetings stuck straight to our list of questions, answered succinctly and then waiting for cues from us to continue. Throughout the week, we learned how to use our time to our advantage. I learned how to redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand if it veered off into another direction, and how to improvise questions when our list was not long enough to fill the space. I learned how to read the conversation and the person/s we were meeting with to know determine much time we need to devote to each section of questions. With the addition of our plan mentioned above, we were prepared to use every minute of time. With our effective time management, the interviewee did not feel the need to step in and fill the space.

  1. Maintain eye contact.

The information we gathered from these interviews was going to be the glue for our disjointed case studies. We wanted to hear from the experts how to piece together the truth from our research and separate out the nonsense. In order to get the most out of these interviews, we need to take detailed notes. I noticed that the person/s we interviewed were more engaged with answering questions when they had a person to maintain eye contact with, instead of looking at the tops of heads pointed at note pads. Sometimes, word-for-word notes can be sacrificed in order to maintain the attention and interest of your interviewee. This is also the advantage of bringing a partner or two to the meeting; you can read through their notes if you cannot take enough of your own.

  1. Credit your source.

At the end of each interview, we assured our source that we would send to them for review any information that we credited to them before the report was published. This simple gesture was much appreciated by all of our interviewees. Most shared a moment where something they said was taken out of context, and they all expressed gratitude for the consideration.

  1. Send thank you notes.

Our parents taught us to send thank you notes when we received gifts as children. Often, this is lost in our adult life. A thank you note can go a long way in the professional world. The people we met with in Washington gave us the gift of their time and expertise, and we want to be sure to thank them. With a thank you note, they know their time was appreciated and will hopefully be willing to be a resource again in the future.

Cameron Lagrone is a first year Master of Public Affairs student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She is a semi-native Ohioan with deep roots in Texas. She worked for two years in anti-hunger non-profits in Texas. She served for one year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Texas Hunger Initiative. Cameron received a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Baylor University.

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