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.