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Handbook 11-33
June 2011

Appendix B. Oral Interview Techniques


The most typical way to gather information during a collection effort is through the oral interview process. In contemporary knowledge management terms, oral interviews capture what often remains as "tacit" or silent knowledge, retained and used only by that individual, group of individuals, or unit so that others can benefit from that knowledge or experience too. There are three types of interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. Each of these have associated advantages and disadvantages, as highlighted below:





High control.
Minimal variability.
Question response analysis possible.
Easier to estimate duration.
Easily managed.

Little to no opportunity for discovery.
Only get answers to what was asked.


Topic/Issue consistency.
Opportunities for deepening.
Opportunities for discovery.
Topic response analysis possible.
More comfortable/relaxed.

Less controlled; introduces more variability since questions may not be identical.
Requires more focus by interviewer to manage/ guide direction.
Requires time management.


Can elicit completely unanticipated information.
No constraints; anything is OK. Extremely casual.
Requires little management.

Comparative analysis is difficult.
Least consistent (topics/ areas).

In most instances, the structured or semi-structured interview is the type preferred. Oral interviews have "pros and cons" that are good to understand:

  • Pros:
    • Captures information that would otherwise not be saved.
    • Provides background information on given topics.
    • Provides personal insights.
    • Provides useful anecdotes and illustrations from first-hand experience.
  • Cons:
    • Oral interview may contain personal biases.
    • Some interviewees may be unwilling to discuss mistakes.
    • The limitation of human memory is the greatest challenge.

Interview Rules of Engagement

Interviews should be conducted by a two-person team, whenever possible. For key interviews, use a digital recorder with interviewee approval. Explain who you are up front, the mission of your organization, and the purpose of the collection effort. Explain that you are there to identify and collect information to support the "why it happened" based on factual examples and that you want to avoid personal opinions, if possible, unless they bear directly on the issue. It is also good to highlight what the final product of the collection will be and to tell the interviewees how they can receive a copy of the observation report. Generally, you will explain to the organization that it will be able to review a draft copy of the report before it goes to final print. Remind the interviewees that you are not an evaluator or inspector, and rules of nonattribution will be in effect if they so desire. You are there to get them to "tell their story" and to make recommendations on how the performance of units or organizations that follow them may be improved by benefiting from their experiences and lessons learned (LL). Tell the interviewees you do not conduct interviews "off the record," and thank them for their time and participation.

Before you start the interview, it is appropriate to ask a few lead-in questions that are not part of the collection plan but are designed to give the interviewer an idea of the qualifications and experience level of the interviewee. This gives you an idea if you are talking to the right subject matter expert. The following questions are examples you can use:

  • How long have you been with the organization?
  • How long have you had this current job or position?
  • How familiar are you with your personnel and with applicable policy or doctrine manuals?
  • What type of training did you receive before you deployed or got this job, and were you satisfied with it?

Before the Interview

  • Write out a list of questions beforehand. This is your collection plan.
  • Try to construct the interview chronologically or by some other logical construct.
  • Contact and orient the interviewee prior to the interview.
  • Provide questions to the interviewee in advance, if possible. In many instances, military units will request a full list of the questions (the collection plan) that will be asked weeks before the collection starts.
  • Make sure your digital recorder is functioning properly and you know how to use it. Carry extra batteries.
  • Bring notepaper and pens.
  • Two sets of ears are better than one, so take a team member with you, if possible.

During the Interview

  • Make introductions.
  • Explain the purpose of the interview and the collection effort. Ensure the interviewee understands you are not an evaluator or inspector.
  • Get permission to digitally record the interview.
  • Turn on the recorder, state your name, the name of the interviewee and his job position, and the date, and announce that the interview is unclassified. Do not ask for personal information, such as the interviewee's social security number.
  • If possible, use two digital voice recorders at the same time for backup.
  • Tell the interviewee that if he goes into a classified area, he must state so beforehand so you can turn off the recorder.
  • Ask your lead-in questions to determine the experience level of the interviewee, and then start with your prepared questions.
  • Take notes, but try to keep your focus on the interviewee. If two interviewers are present, one can take notes and the other can give attention to the interviewee.
  • Interject new questions if necessary to clarify or go into more detail on certain points; this is the "art" of interviewing.
  • Sixty minutes is about the maximum length for an interview at one sitting.

After the Interview

Fully write out the observation as soon as possible following the interview. This is very important. The information is fresh and you have less chance of confusing it with other, possibly conflicting, information at a later date. It is best if you can write the full observation within 24 hours of the interview. A good goal is to write it the evening following the interview. After conducting several interviews, it is very easy to confuse sources and recommendations. If you have the time, invite the interviewee to make revisions or clarifications to the text, point out confusing passages, and ask if you have correctly stated the observation.

Label the tape with name, date, and location, as required. If there is a chance an observation is classified, have the unit security officer review it. Make the necessary changes in an attempt to keep the observation unclassified.

Thank the interviewee for his time. Ask for phone numbers and e-mail addresses and if you can contact him in the future for any additional clarifications once the observation report is in draft.

Review "due outs" from or to the interviewee. Make sure you follow through by providing any materials or information requested by the interviewee from the LL organization's archives or databases that will help him do his job.


Be prepared. Always read up on the subject you are reporting about and the person you are interviewing. Set the rules for the interview up front. Be sure your subject understands what you are working on and the issues you are addressing. Be on time. The worst impression you can make is being late for the interview. Be polite and do not rush your interviewee. It is important to establish rapport and a level of comfort. Listen but do not be afraid to interrupt when you do not understand a point. Try to maintain eye contact. This will make the interview more like a conversation and enable everyone to be more relaxed. Finally, review your notes right after the interview and make any clarifications necessary. After interviewing several people, your notes will begin to "run together" if you do not have some way to draw distinctions between each interview.

Begin the interview by reading this brief introductory statement. (The introductory statement must be recorded.)

This is (interviewer's name) __________________________________.

The date is (month, day, year) _________________________________.

This interview is with (first name and last name; spell out on tape) __________________________________________________________

who has served as (job title) ___________________________________

for (name of organization/command)____________________________ since


We are conducting this interview at (name) ______________________ in (city/state/country)________________________________________.

This interview will address the topic(s) of (list major topics of discussion):

The purpose of this interview is to collect information based on needs, recommendations, and suggestions that can be used to improve company capabilities. The information will be used to support management in the execution of responsibilities to organize, train, equip, and move toward a more efficient running organization. This interview may be transcribed and posted to the company website for review by authorized individuals. The information from this interview may be made available to other companies. If you prefer, we can conduct the interview on a nonattribution basis, meaning the interview is recorded and transcribed, but identifying information is removed to make you anonymous.

Do I have permission to record this interview and associate your name with it? (Subject Response: Yes/No) _________. Your candidness during the interview is appreciated, but understand that we cannot offer legal immunity for information you disclose. Do you have any questions before we start the interview? (Subject Response: Yes/No) _________.

Begin interview questions.

Closing: "Thank you for your participation. This concludes the interview."

Figure B-1. Interview outline

Interview Summary Worksheet


Indicate whether the interview is to be transcribed or not and indicate the priority. Summaries are to be completed by the interviewer. After completion, upload this form to the company website. Send an e-mail to the transcriptionists to notify them that the interviews and/or summary worksheets have been uploaded. An alternative is to e-mail the summary worksheets and/or interviews as an attachment.

Interview to be transcribed

Priority for transcription:




Interview to NOT be transcribed (due to poor audio quality, low precedence, in written form only, etc.)

Identifying information

Date of interview:


Interviewer's name (First, MI, Last):

Subject's name (First, MI, Last):



Primary topics of discussion:


Needs statements:

Figure B-2. Interview summary worksheet

Guidelines for Writing a Lessons Learned Report

A report of LL should address some key issues:

  • Assessment of goals and objectives.
  • Identification of activities or areas needing additional effort.
  • Identification of effective activities or strategies.
  • Comparison of costs and results of different activities.
  • Assessment of the roles of organizations in the project and the interactions among the organizations.

To assess goals and objectives, consider these questions:

  • Were the program objectives appropriate for the program goals?
  • Were the objectives met?
  • Does any new information about the issue need to be incorporated into the program messages or design?

To determine areas where additional effort is needed, consider these questions:

  • Were any objectives unmet?
  • Were any strategies or activities unsuccessful?

To identify effective activities or strategies, consider these questions:

  • Were some objectives met as a result of successful activities?
  • Should these activities be continued, renewed, and strengthened?
  • Can you expand these activities to apply to other audiences or situations?

To compare costs and results of different activities, consider these questions:

  • What were the relative costs (including staff time) and results of different aspects of your program?
  • Did some activities appear to work as well as others but cost less?

To assess the roles of organizations in the project and the way these organizations worked together, consider these questions:

  • Did any conflicts of organizational agendas or operating styles occur?
  • How did the timing of the program coordinate with the different organizations involved?


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