Jen Bladen

“Interviews may be conversational,
but they are not casual conversations.”

I had the privilege to co-teach a class with a colleague in Harvard-Westlake’s Kutler Center for Interdisciplinary Studies & Independent Research last week. The course is History’s Imprint on Modern Chinese Culture and I was there to help the students in the class learn to interview a guest speaker next month. The students were an absolute joy to teach, and my colleague is among my favorites. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to this education community — and in person! What a treat.

Here are the points I gathered for the Modern Chinese Culture class. Perhaps you and your school media staff will find some of them helpful.

Interviewing Abroad

Before Interview

Determine your goals:

  • Do you want to obtain specific information? If so, what?
  • Even if you’re just interested in “learning more,” do your best to determine what you’d like to learn.

Conduct research:

  • You may not know enough to even know what to ask.
  • Research the subject’s specialty (for example, learn the rules of lacrosse before interviewing a lacrosse player, watch a game).
  • Learn enough about the subject (or the subject’s expertise) to ask intelligent questions.

Confirm the interview:

  • Give the subject a heads-up that you’ll be taking photos and/or video.
  • Let the subject know what the topic of your interview is (no surprises!).

Compile a list of questions you’d like to ask:

  • They can be highly specific (“What were you doing at noon on June 12, 2003?”) or general in nature (“Tell me about your work”), as required.
  • Learn enough about the subject (or the subject’s expertise) to ask intelligent questions.

Ensure that your list includes the most basic questions:

  • Is the interview on the record?
  • Even if you know the subject’s name (and presumably you do), you should always ask and confirm the spelling; if appropriate, get the name of his or her organization and title.

Gather the tools of the trade:

  • camera | notebook | business cards
  • voice or video recorder (make sure it’s fully charged and tested; if you’re really cautious, you can bring a backup unit)
  • pen or pencil (always carry a backup)

During Interview

First, regardless of the situation, state that you are a journalist (or the purpose of the interview).

Be sure to take notes even if you’re recording the interview.

  • Indicate that you are planning to publish or broadcast material from the interview, even if you don’t know where or how it will be published.
  • You should explain that it may be seen publicly, even if that’s only in a classroom setting.

Interview at the subject’s home or workplace.

  • Take notes about what you see, feel, experience in their space.

Ask permission to record the interview and be sure to mute your phone:

  • Especially if you’re using it as your recording device!

Small talk goes a long way at the beginning of any interview.

  • Use your set-up time to get to know each other.
  • If the subject offers you coffee/water/beet juice, accept graciously.

Ask open-ended questions:

  • Better yet, give prompts. “Tell me about…”

Control the flow of the interview, ask your questions and keep things on track…

  • But also let the flow go where it’s most interesting.
  • Look for a natural pause to take a few photos after the subject is comfortable with you.
  • If you uncover something juicy, don’t go back to your old list of questions.
  • And… get what you came for. If an important question is sidestepped, ask again.
  • Be polite and respectful, but also firm.

Take notes:

  • ...but don’t allow notetaking to become distracting.
  • If something is said you want to remember, jot down the time in the interview when it occurred — this will greatly speed finding and verifying the quote after the fact.
  • If your source mentions the name of a person, organization or place, ask for confirmation of the spelling.

“Do not let anyone force you to agree to have quotations approved before they are used in your story; it is not good journalistic practice and does not serve your audience in an honest way. This has become an important ethical issue in contemporary American journalism.” From The Journalist’s Resource

After Interview

An excellent last question might be, “What’s something I should have asked you that I haven’t?”

Thank the interviewee for their time and ask if you can be in contact again if there are additional questions.

Ask for access to photos and any other documents or objects that have come up. It will be much harder to do this hours or days later.

Write as soon as possible while the interview is fresh in your mind.


From Workforce

  1. Confirm day and time (and time zone) in writing. 

  2. It is courteous to inform your subject who will be on the call (if more than one interviewer).

    • If multiple interviewers, be careful that only one interviewer speaks at a time. Don’t overwhelm the subject with many voices.

  3. Many Chinese adults have had formal English education since sixth grade and have a good command of reading, writing and the spoken word. (You may also have a good command of Chinese.) Be aware that speaking ability in a second language, however, falls off markedly when using voice only or even voice+video. 

  4. Small talk goes a long way at the beginning of any interview.

  5. Make an effort to speak clearly, minimizing the use of contractions and slang. Avoid asking questions in the negative form. Asking, “Don’t you like basketball?” may leave the subject mystified. Instead, try “Do you like basketball?”

  6. Summarize the key points covered and recount the subject’s answers to important questions. Ask if they feel the need to clarify any of their responses or add some important missed point.

When Operating In A Language
You Don’t Know

From Poynter.

  1. Look for other speakers of a language you know well.

  2. Seek “culture brokers” among young people.

  3. Take your time. “The longer you’re with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel.”

4. Use all of your senses. 

5. Hire a translator and/or develop a network of translators. 

Interview Questions

The interview questions below were adapted from J. P. Spradley’s work in The Ethnographic Interview

You may wish to include some of the same or similar questions when conducting your interview to learn more about the experiences your subject had while living in China. 

Grand Tour Questions

Daily Details

Experience Questions

Native Questions