Strategies for Interviewing Strangers

  1. Capture attention and interest in your initial contact (email/phone) 
    • Introduce yourself (e.g. “I’m an MIT undergraduate student working on a class project…”)
    • Be transparent and explicit about the purpose of the communication and the interview
      • Why are you contacting this person?
        • If sending an email, the subject line should indicate the purpose of the communication
      • Why do you want to interview them?
        • “I want to learn about you and your work…”
    • Why should this person take the time to respond?
      • Share what you hope to gain from the interview
      • Describe what you plan to do with the information provided
    • When do you need to meet?
      • Be specific with the deadline!
        • This deadline should be well in advance of your assignment due date
    • How long will the interview take?
      • Be specific or provide an approximate range (e.g. 20-30min)
    • Where will the interview take place?
      • Be flexible with the location: what works best for the interviewee?
  2. Prepare targeted and open-ended questions 
    • Focus on the person’s experiences
      • Resist the temptation to offer solutions
    • Prioritize your questions, as you will likely not be able to ask them all
    • Record the interview (audio), if possible, but ask for the interviewee’s permission
    • If you don’t yet have a photograph of the person, ask them for one, or take one
      • You can be creative: think back to the pic of the astronomer tying his shoe
  3. Plan to improvise 
    • Ask “why?” after brief answers
    • Ask follow-up questions when you’re curious to learn more
    • Ask for explanations when you do not understand an answer
      • Listening to the way in which they explain their work to others is likely valuable for your profile article
    • Don’t be afraid to go off script
    • Enjoy the conversation
  4. Be gracious and kind 
    • Time is precious, they’ve given you a gift
    • Reiterate the impact of their help
    • This person might be a helpful contact in the future
  5. Have FUN 
    • Interviewing strangers is an adventure of discovery!

Generate a list of questions to ask the interviewee(s) in order to learn more about their experience. Write down as many questions as you can.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2016
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights