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?
  1. 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
  1. 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
  1. 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
  1. 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.