Checklist for qualitative interviews

Created on

June 10 2022

I stumbled into journalism by accident. This meant that when I first started working as a journalist I had no formal training - or for that matter previous experience - in the field, including how to conduct effective interviews for stories.

I worked in journalism roles for the next 7 years and did 100s of interviews. Here’s a cheatsheet on everything I’ve learnt through this experience.

Yun Xuan and I had originally prepared this for a workshop we hosted in March 2021 for students at the Yale-NUS College.

Before I jump in, something to keep in mind: my experience is largely based on interviews with public sector officials. I’ve generalised some of this, but the checklist may still reflect some quirks specific to dealing with these kinds of interviews.

The Checklist

1. Finding and reaching out to interview subjects

  • Finding your interview subject:
    • Research who has spoken on it before, given talks, written pieces.
      • Look at what people are saying on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter in some cases).
    • Contacting them: find their contact via SGDI (for SG public sector), cc 2-3 corporate communications staff in the email thread (they can help to follow up with a spokesperson on your interview request).
      • If this person is not in the Singapore Civil Service, you may need to get creative in your research. An obvious starting point is their organisation’s website. Also look at their personal profiles - do they have a blog? Are they active on social media? All of these can be ways to get in touch with them.
  • How to convince someone to do an interview:
    • Be clear about what you’d like from them. Communicate why that matters and why your work is relevant to them.
    • Important to be very polite, grateful for their time etc. Don’t assume that they must talk to you for any reason.
      • If you’re contacting over the phone, keep it short. Give them a chance to respond.
    • Be clear about timelines, expectations, next steps
      • Are you okay with written responses, if a telephone interview is not possible
      • Often they will ask for questions before they commit to the interview. If the interview is f2f or over phone, share topline questions. If over email, the question list needs to be a lot more detailed.
      • Be clear about how the interview will be used and where it will be published.
    • Draft previews: this is really up to you! Be ready for some edits from corp comms if you do share a draft. Up to you on whether you’re okay to take in changes or want to hold your ground on certain areas (unless it’s an issue of accuracy of course).
    • Response timelines:
      • Civil servants/policymakers: expect to buffer atleast a month between your pitch and the interview (could be shorter and longer in some cases)
      • Based on our experience, academics often provide responses/interviews on shorter timelines (sometimes even the same week)

2. Best practices to prepare for interviews

  • Research (both on the topic and the person):
    • Person & Org: what have they said about the topic before -> where do you want to push them deeper (look at speeches, social media, interviews, op-eds, blog posts etc)
      • Think about: (a) what unique perspectives might the person bring to the topic; (b) what would they want to talk about vs what you want them to talk about - ideally you want to find an overlap in these two.
    • What has already been said on the topic: media, official websites, papers and other publications
    • What has already been done on this issue, what kind of impact has that had. Read about what else might already be planned for the future. If there are similar issues overseas, what are people saying in other countries - what kinds of approaches have they used; what’s worked; what have been some of the challenges (this is a good way to learn about the stuff that hasn’t worked)
    • Synthesise and structure what you’ve learned: be conscious that you might not know everything about a topic, but should know enough to ask good questions. Most likely, your interview subject will know more than you.
  • Writing interview questions:
    • Keep them short and sharp: long questions are hard to follow, are more likely to lead to confusion/ambiguity on what you really want to know
    • What kinds of questions to ask
      • Include a few questions that are easy to answer and that you know they will want to answer (because it makes them look good!) - always keep your subject’s self-interest in mind. This helps put the interviewee at ease at the beginning of the conversation.
      • Avoid yes/no questions: what, why, how are good. Ask about impact, reasons, considerations. If you ask about challenges, always follow up with solutions or opportunities.
      • Why is very important: knowing the thinking behind a policy/project will help you understand it more deeply. You don’t want just a description of it. Find out what motivated them to do/think the way they did
        1. The ‘Five Whys’ approach is useful to apply to understand the root cause of an issue: dont have to ask why 5 times, but don’t be afraid to ask why multiple times
      • No. of questions - prepare roughly 10-15 questions for a 45 minute interview. You may not get to ask all questions but it’s always good to have additional questions in your backpocket. This gives you ample ammunition in case any lines of questioning don’t lead somewhere interesting for your project.
        1. Divide your questions into subsections and have a sense of which sections you would prioritise.

3. Conducting effective interviews

Be early


  • Have your set of interview questions in front of you (either printed out or on a screen)
  • Note taking mechanism (pen and paper or computer, depending on which one you’re more comfortable with)
    • Typing vs handwriting: typing allows you to a) ctrl+f and find things in your notes much quicker; and b) retrieve the notes in the future
  • Otter.ai or another voice recording mechanism (do let the interviewee know the session will be recorded before you press the record button. They’ll usually be okay with it if you explain that this is to make sure you get quotes and facts right.)

Note-taking tips:

  • Take copious amounts of notes - as much as your typing speed will allow. Okay to leave out things that you know are not relevant or interesting for your purposes
  • Bold/highlight parts that you want to follow up on - so once they’re done talking you can come back to those
    • If you’re handwriting, highlight in some way that parts that you want to come back to later
  • Take note of when they say they will send you additional resources after the interview, so you can follow up on it with them over email.
  • Bonus: Take note of timestamps from the recording, esp for quotes (this will help you find relevant parts way quicker when you’re writing up the piece)

How to conduct the interview:


  • Start by offering to introduce yourself and the purpose of the interview (keep it brief - max 30 seconds)
  • Set out the brief topics that you would like to cover during the interview

During the interview

  • Always good to ask for specifics: case studies, examples, impact
  • Don’t be afraid to clarify if you’re not sure of what they mean/don’t understand.
    • Think about how you can reframe the question a bit, rather than repeating the previous question
  • Keep an eye on the time and respect the time they have allocated for the interview


  • Close by thanking them for their time, asking if they have anything else they would like to say, and letting them know what the next steps would be. If you’re sending them a preview, let them know when they can expect it. Otherwise, let them know when your writing would be published. You can mention that you’ll drop them a copy of the final version as well (if you’re comfortable!)

General tips

  • Smile! Be warm and polite
  • Be confident (but not arrogant!)
  • Keep it conversational (not informal, but also don’t make it sound like you’re just reading off a list). Engage with them, build rapport.
  • Give affirmative responses and acknowledge what they’re saying: if something is interesting, funny, strange etc! This helps it feel more like a conversation
  • Maintain eye contact - this is especially important for virtual interviews
    • Ok to look at your screen, but every now and then look directly in the camera
  • Be conscious of how media-trained your interviewee is:
    • If they are trained and experienced at interviews, they will likely be confident
    • If they are not, keep in mind that they might not sound as polished
  • Go into the interview with the understanding that both of you are on the same side

4. Extracting insights from interviews and translating them into writing

  • Go back to your notes the same day if possible - and pick out the parts that stand out.
  • Transcribe your recording: Otter.ai is a useful free tool for this. Make sure your transcript is absolutely accurate because it will form the basis of your writing. If you’re not sure about certain words (because it doesn’t sound clear), make notes of this and come back to them in the end. If you still can’t decipher them, get someone else to have a listen. Your notes will also be useful here in case you’ve forgotten the context of something the interviewee said.
  • Go through your notes systematically (printing out the transcript can help with this) and highlight the parts that are interesting and might be relevant.
  • Compare the interviewee’s arguments and examples against the research that you’ve previously done. Take note of points that may be contradictory (these need to be clarified) or are novel.
    • If you find that you need to clarify certain points after processing the information you got from the interview, structure them into clear questions and share them with the interviewee. This can be done over email or a quick call, depending on which is easier or more convenient for the interviewee.
  • Synthesise and summarise the key points from the interview + your research. Important to make sure you don’t take the points out of context during this step.
  • While synthesising the information you have, group them into different baskets/points. This makes it much easier when you’re writing up the final piece, so you just have to think about rearranging the baskets rather than reorganising all the information you have.
    • The basket step is very important so make sure to give it enough time to do it well. Else you will have to redo it later.
  • Know that not everything the interviewee said will make it to your final draft. Be conscious that you have to make certain trade offs and be clear about how you make those trade-offs.