Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Seven habits for recording interviews

As a journalist, I regularly record my interviews (with the interviewee’s knowledge and permission, of course).

I’ve used several audio recording technologies over the years. Thinking through them all, I’ve come up with five that have proven dependable, if not always outstanding. They range from free to mid-range expensive.

More importantly, I’ve also developed seven habits that help me capture conversations clearly. These are what I want to share here today.

Record the highest-quality sound you can

To make sure you can clearly understand what was said, make sure the recording device is set to capture the highest quality audio it can. While higher-quality sound files generally take up more space on your device, the tradeoff – understandably – makes this choice straightforward.

Take notes while you interview

Should recording technology fail you, the analog option is a great fallback.

Prevent background noise

You might record to a device while you type notes on an external keyboard. If both recorder and keyboard are on the same piece of furniture, place a soft article of clothing (e.g. scarf, folded t-shirt, tea towel) under each to muffle the sound of keys clacking and any vibrations your typing might cause to travel via the surface it’s on to the recorder.

This tip also applies to the phone used during phone interviews if it sits on the same surface as the keyboard. Otherwise, you may mar your recording and send an annoying earful of keyclacking, taps and other noises to the interviewee.

Ask permission

For interviews, it’s better to ask permission than to beg forgiveness. Not that this should be a problem. In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted, two people (at most) refused permission to record. (This tip goes for phone interviews too, when the interlocutor can’t tell if you’re recording. You aren’t likely to run into trouble either way, but I still advise ethical behaviour.)

Note time indices

When an interviewee says something that you might include in your writing, glance at the screen of your recording device to note the time at which it was said and write that time in your notes, along with a word or two about what was said. This one habit can save hours of needless transcription.

Be trustworthy

I have yet to share or publish the recordings I’ve made. If I do, I’ll ask permission of the people I spoke with.

Make backup copies

I keep interview sound files on my computer and back them up both to an external hard disk drive and to a cloud synchronization service.If, for any reason, I lose one copy, I can find others.

About the technologies I use

None of the recording tools I use produce broadcast quality audio, but that’s not what I need. I just aim for sound clear enough that I can hear exactly what people say during interviews.

I’ll detail the tools I’ve used in future blog posts, from recording to playback to file management to advantages and drawbacks. I have used both:

  • physical  devices (Olympus voice recorder, Livescribe Echo “smartpen”)
  • software (Call Recorder, a Skype plugin; Notability, a tablet and smartphone app, and QuickTime, a computer-based app)

Technical note: While I have a Mac, everything mentioned in this series of posts works with Windows as well.


Do you record your interviews? What habits serve you well when you do? Please share those habits in the comments below.

  1. Luigi — great advice. Mind if I share this link with my students?

    • Thanks Margaret. And please do share the post with your students. If they have any questions, tell them to ask in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

  2. Good advice. I would also recommend, as soon as the interview is over, while the experience is still fresh, write notes and transcription along with first draft. With each passing day, it’s easy to lose the energy, impressions and insights from the experience, and the resulting article won’t have the same flavour or intensity. I’ve tried it both ways, and the ‘fresh’ article is always more lively and enjoyable.

    • Great tip, Meg. Certainly post-recording, but that work is the reason you make recordings in the first place.

      I’m thinking about republishing this post elsewhere, improved by the comments I’ve received so far. Would you mind if I use you tip in the new post, Meg?