Interview takeaways and throwaways

YOU’LL OFTEN BE ASKED about the “takeaways” of a particular meeting. In other words: what was new and meaningful, to you or to a broader conversation occurring on a given topic? What are you going home with, and might want to share with others?

The query also suggests that there is much to cast aside and quickly forget. As a rule, the ratio between the time invested in social interactions and the immediate, measurable benefits we derive from them raises questions about why we talk to each other in the first place. Human encounters entail much flourish that shapes the relationship more than it advances the actual exchange of useful information. In linguistics, conversations are said to be largely “phatic,” or replete with utterances designed to express respect, gain trust, show interest, and so on. Throw in chitchat and banalities, and you’ll realize that a good part of an interview, when doing fieldwork, may not be worth remembering at all.

As note-taking and typing is eminently time-consuming, it’s good to stick to essentials and strike the right balance. It shouldn’t become so tedious as to disincentive plentiful meetings; by the same token, if you prioritize the latter but fail to keep their substance on record, you’re just chasing your tail.

The key elements of an interview are pretty straightforward.

  • You really can’t miss jotting down basic facts that cannot be found elsewhere.
  • You want to capture your interlocutor’s specific viewpoint or “narrative”, preferably through good quotes that aptly convey it.
  • You should retain novel angles of analysis you hadn’t come across so far.
  • Definitely don’t forget the names and details of other contacts, ideally with some background on why this person referred to them.
  • And, at times, gossip may carry more value than we care to admit.

In addition, it is important to keep track of your own association of ideas as you receive and process such information. All meetings are, to some degree, a transformative moment: you shouldn’t be quite the same person with quite the same thoughts as you walk out. Fieldwork adds these encounters up into a deeper transformation, as you experience your topic, toy with it, and tie together the bits and pieces of analysis that came up all along. Your notes should reflect this other layer, which corresponds not to what is being said, but to its effect on you. [And make sure you mark it clearly as distinct, for instance by placing it in brackets.]

As you go from one interview to the next, note-taking should be cumulative. Verifiable facts and stereotyped narratives need only be logged once. Each encounter poses the question anew: what can I add to what I know already? Of course, having a good record of the latter helps a great deal with identifying the gaps.

Saving everything compulsively is the best way of drowning out both what’s meaningful and what’s missing. Takeaways from a truly informative interview rarely will be longer than two to three pages. In many cases, especially with sensitive issues or topics we are familiar with, a one hour conversation may boil down to two or three sentences.

The act of memorizing segments of a conversation can be a very efficient way of concentrating its substance into what really deserves to be preserved. This exercise, however, calls for a trained mind and uncompromising discipline. Just like a dream will be forgotten soon after waking, a conversation will quickly start to fade. Pinning it down starts even before it ends, by making mental notes of keywords and sequences. To be of any lasting value, these must be written at the first occasion. Only with that outline on paper or screen does it become possible to recall, typically within the next 48 hours at most, the flow and the detail of the discussion.

In this way, you can both be more focused and spontaneous during the interview and ensure that you distill it into its essence. Although this approach is far from ideal, it is often is the only way to go when fieldwork gets intense and more comprehensive methods become infeasible.

In any event, if you’re struggling to motivate yourself with note-taking and typing, consider this: if you’re not accumulating takeaways, that means you’re treating the entire, incredible, game-changing fieldwork you’ve undertaken as a throwaway. So go sharpen them pencils!

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Illustration credit: Bernhard Otto Holterman with 630lb gold from Hill End by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alex says:

    I have a few additions that I thought worth mentioning.

    First, and to build upon this critical point about capturing “narratives,” I find it can be very helpful to sometimes go beyond writing the important parts of a spoken conversation and record bits and pieces of less concrete but no less revealing information: body language, tone, even details of the physical place. I will often make note of some particularly emotive hand gesture or an abrupt switch from one language to another to emphasize a certain point, because these things say much about the person I’m speaking with in general and about their feelings on a given subject in particular. I likewise try to note any time there’s a palpable change in tone, for example when someone goes from bored and glib to intense or angry or excited. Among other advantages, making note of this sort of “color” helps me keep an exchange vivid in my mind long after other details have faded.

    A second point concerns moving back and forth between languages. No matter how fluent you are in multiple languages, things can always get lost in translation–some words and phrases simply can’t be translated, or have multiple meanings of connotations, etc. When I conduct an interview in Arabic and write notes in English, I will almost invariably include at least a few Arabic words that I feel are essential to properly understanding the speaker’s sentiment.

    Third, I frequently leave a meeting and frantically scribble down certain details like those mentioned above, along with quotes, numbers, etc. that I wasn’t able to get down at the time. Sometimes you don’t write things down in the moment because you’re focused on the conversation, trying not to bury yourself in a notepad, or don’t want to be writing down something sensitive–those are all signs of a good interview, but they also make it all the more critical to be taking mental notes that you convert into literal notes while they’re still fresh.

    Last, I think it’s very important to get good at recognizing the parts of an interview that are not going to be useful, and putting those junctures to good use. When someone starts off on a familiar rant, I put a place holder in my notes (e.g. “Rants about imperialism”) and think hard about ways to redirect the conversation constructively, while also staying tuned in for anything novel.

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