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Teaching How to Take Interview Notes

During my first years of teaching, I focused on questions, listening, quote selection and other basics when teaching interviewing. I assumed students knew how to take notes during interviews--what could be that hard? Listen for good stuff and write it down, right?


One day I realized that most of my students were trying to write down literally every word their interviewee was saying. Two problems: that isn't possible (especially for slow writers) and they weren't analyzing or even really HEARING what the people were saying. They were just trying to get every word down. So I started teaching note taking and it has helped in big ways.

I start with this handout from Tim Harrower's "Inside Reporting" textbook and have each student decide on one tip to use for their own note taking system.

Next, I ask how many think they need to write down every word the person says (it is usually a lot). To prove that this is impossible, I play several songs for them (increasing in speed of tempo) and ask them to write down every word. They count how many they got down before they lost it and quickly figure out they can't write everything down.

Slow Song: Hey Jude Medium Song: Mama's Broken Heart Fast Song: We Didn't Start the Fire

To practice writing important information down and to develop a critical ear, we then watch several of CNN's Red Chair interviews. Students listen and have to write down at least five facts and two word-for-word quotes from what they hear. I do the exercise with them and then we compare and discuss after each short video.

One of my favorite Red Chair interviews is with the woman who voices Siri:

Bonus for the final video: I have them take notes without looking at their paper to practice maintaining eye contact. They hate it but it helps!

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