Case Study Interviews 101

Interviewing 101

Great interviews and case studies bring your stories to life. But how do you get the best studies out there? Where do you begin? How do you get the best, juiciest bits from people, whilst respecting their privacy? Rosie and I share some insights from our experiences of interviewing for Third Sector case studies. Rosie’s been working in Third Sector Communications for the past 10 years, with varied roles including Head of Communications for the Mental Welfare Commission. Thanks to Rosie for sprinkling some of her gold dust on this and letting me cannibalise her training materials for this blog post.


There are 3 kinds of interviewing you can use for your case study work. Via email, phone or in person- getting it right for phone and face-to-face interviews is key. Firstly, make sure you’ve set aside plenty of time to allow your interviewee to share unrushed and in more depth.

If you’re on the phone, ensure you’re in a quiet spot, with good signal and preferably using hands free. Remember to check that your interviewee is comfortable and free to speak as well. You need them to be as relaxed as possible- and part of that is checking that they’ve got the privacy to speak before you launch into your questions.

When meeting face-to-face, find somewhere that’s comfortable and suitable: their living room? A cafe? Or just a quiet corner at work that affords some privacy. Chances are, the more relaxed you both are, the better the interview will be.

It’s best to start with what message you hope to spread through this person’s story.

2) Discuss questions, but don’t prepare a script.

Coming up with interesting questions is the backbone to your interview. If you’re stuck with what questions to ask, brainstorm with your colleagues. It’s best to start with what message you hope to spread through this person’s story. Want to focus on empowerment? Ask directly. You’re not a lawyer: you can be leading in your line of questioning. Ask a mix of open and closed questions. I like to start with some basics and have a general chat before going into more depth. Keep the meatier questions for the middle of the interview and then end with a couple of more closed questions. Why? This allows the person who’s been so generous with their time to relax and recover from any personal or emotional topics they might have spoken about; they’ll be able to wind down slightly. You don’t know what might come up in your interview, so have a couple of key phrases you can fall back on if your interviewee discloses something really personal or upsetting. If you’re stuck with what questions to ask, brainstorm with your colleagues. It’s best to start with what message you hope to spread through this person’s story.

3) Listen: focus on more than just your questions

Anything interesting come up? Be open to what they’re saying and let that guide your interview. It might not be the narrative you were expecting and that’s probably a good thing! In March I interviewed a number of designers at Edinburgh Yarn Festival about the health benefits of knitting. In particular I was surprised by Julia’s response: “I’m a graphic designer and when I get stuck with something or can’t think I pick up my knitting and whatever the problem is just seems to fix itself.” I’d never experienced this and we chatted about this for a few minutes.

4) Engage emotionally- laugh or cry with the person

Make a personal connection! You know you’re more likely to share more of yourself when you’ve found common ground. Part of this is simply being human and reacting to what you’re being told. This isn’t a scientific or an anthropological exercise- you can empathise, offer comfort or share in the joke. I once pressed pause on an interview when the person I spoke with shared that she was depressed to the point of suicide (this isn’t day-to-day, we were speaking about long term health problems). On another occasion, I was speaking with a guy about his divorce and the new way his family was structured. We spent about ten minutes chatting about the hurt he’d felt, before he moved on to discuss the ways my charity’s service supported him. I didn’t use that what spoke about, but my willingness to listen and engage with that part of his story meant he felt heard and could move on to speak more constructively.

Rosie’s Favourite Interview Question: “I’d say the best one is to ask: “what advice would you give to someone else in the same situation, or even what advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time.”

Rosie is delivering some of our upcoming workshops: Social Reporting using video and audio on 25 August 2016 and her next workshop on Using Case Studies is 8 December 2016.

Want to develop more skills in using case studies, or experimenting by using video or audio?
Words by Carrie Webb

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