Taking Notes vs. Recording Interviews

I used to record every interview with my digital recorder (or tape-recorder in the old days) and then painstakingly transcribe it later, word for word. But a couple of years ago I was asked to do a project that had a budget too small to pay for transcription. The client suggested that I “just take notes.” There were twenty-five, 15-minute interviews I needed to conduct. With some trepidation, I agreed to give it a try.

I remembered a book on my shelf called On Writing Well by William Zinsser in which he actually recommends taking written notes when conducting live interviews: “I do my interviewing by hand with a sharp No.1 pencil. I like the fact that the person can see me working—doing a job, not just sitting there letting the machine do it for me.” Zinsser acknowledges the challenges of writing fast enough to accurately record a live interview but he says he tells his interviewee to “hold up a minute,” when they are talking faster than he can possibly transcribe. With practice, he guarantees we get faster and develop our own from of short-hand.

So feeling better, but lacking complete confidence in my ability to pull it off, I launched into the project using the recorder as back up. (It was there in case the note-taking didn’t work out but I was hoping not to have to listen to any of those recordings.) I started each interview letting the respondent know I would be stopping them periodically to let my note-taking catch up with them. I noticed that with each new interview I got faster and more comfortable stopping the respondent. I also grew more confident. And when I was done with the first few, I spot checked my notes against the recordings and was impressed with my accuracy.

I’ve since used note-taking for other research projects and actually prefer it for one-person interviews where I can build in time to go slower. I’ve noticed several unanticipated benefits:

  • Note-taking keeps me more alert to what the respondent is saying.
  • The act of writing more actively engages my brain with the material.
  • The interview is more interactive due to frequent checking in with the respondent.
  • I’m more likely to identify ambiguous comments that need clarifying.
  • The respondent feels I take them seriously when I write down everything they tell me.
  • The respondent can make corrections on the spot when they see what I’m writing.
  • It affords the respondent periodic breathers during which to gather their thoughts.
  • It allows respondents more time to change, augment, or improve their answers.
  • It engenders more thoughtful and concise responses.

Within 24 hours (just within the bounds of my recall) of conducting note-only interviews I use voice recognition software to transcribe my notes. At that point I translate my short-hand and fill in any necessary prepositions and connectors to make sure I have complete sentences.

Live note-taking is not for everyone or every situation. But I plan to continue to hone my note-taking skills by learning some short-hand. I recently purchased, “Easy 4 Me 2 Learn Speed Writing,” by Heather Baker. It’s based on the old Pittman shorthand method but is much more intuitive: no strange squiggles to learn.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


  1. Maggie Miller
    Maggie MillerAugust 4,10

    Hi Susan, I’ve been thinking about this since I first read it and I wanted to make a comment.

    I typically take notes in interviews.

    Some of my work, as you know, is not evaluation, but is executive coaching. (It has a lot in common with aspects of evaluation work. They both involve taking in a lot of information, synthesizing it, and communicating about it.)

    I take notes during coaching sessions, and – because it’s just how I think – my notes sometimes involve arrows, lines, stars, etc. to show the relationships among things that my client is talking about. Often as not, my client starts looking at my picture-notes, and we use them as a tool to talk about what s/he wants to do next, or should think about, etc. etc. It’s like sketching a logic model for her plan to talk to the board about fundraising or engage her staff in training.

    When I read some of the benefits that you listed (e.g. “the interview is more interactive due to frequent checking in with the respondent, the respondent can make corrections on the spot when they see what I’m writing”), it got me thinking about how much a coaching session can be like an evaluation interview, and I’ve been mulling it ever since!

  2. Susan Eliot
    Susan EliotAugust 4,10

    Thanks so much for your comment Maggie. What a great analogy. And how thoughtful your process sounds. Makes me want to sign up for some executive coaching with you!

  3. Jenny
    JennyMay 13,13

    Thank you for this, Susan. I am conducting my research right now and I have decided to go with note-taking rather than recording my interviewees. I have added an additional step and asked my interviewees to review my typed interview and make edits as needed.

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