Taking Note – Memorializing Your Interviews

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Fran S.

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When I teach classes on investigative techniques, I say emphatically that note-taking is one of the most challenging skills for an investigator (or any interviewer, for that matter) to develop. First of all, there is no template for “good notes” from an objective standpoint. My notes may be neat and tidy, and yours may look like gobbledygook, but that tells us nothing about their usefulness. The gold standard for investigative notes is not their style, their organization, even their general readability. It is that the person who wrote them can reproduce as close to verbatim as possible what was said, and moreover, that they can do this several years after the notes were taken.

I recommend a five-stage approach to interviewing that actually involves hearing the interviewee’s “story” three times, with the second and third time completely under the direction of the interviewer. At least in this circumstance, the interviewer can impose order on the information being collected and can get the data in a manner easiest for him and her to record.

Taking notes in any medium is acceptable, if it will do the job, the interviewer is competent at doing so, and the original notes can be distinguished by any “filling in” done after the interview. Using a PC will allow a skilled keyboarder to take nearly verbatim notes, while handwriting will call for skilled shorthand, “notehand”, or at least the frequent use of abbreviations. Under these circumstances, it is best to review your notes immediately after each interview and to clarify things which might not be durably understandable. As mentioned above, however, one should do that in a new color ink, a different font or on a saved document with a “track changes” command, and both versions should be maintained in the file.

Most importantly, notes are notes of what was asked and what was said. Period. They should not include the investigator’s objective OR subjective impressions; these should be noted elsewhere, such as a 3X5 card or notepad. There is nothing wrong with an investigator forming impressions, but it is problematic if the investigator does not know the difference between what was said and what he or she thought about what was said.

Finally, notes are FOR THE INVESTIGATOR. I strongly advise against showing them to anyone unless the investigator is compelled to do so. Once those notes have been shared with a party or decision-maker, the obligation arises to do this for every interviewee, which means that notes are no longer being written to meet the gold standard — they are being written (or rewritten) so that the party they are being shown to can read them, which adds unnecessary time and possible privacy breaches to the already complex circumstances of an investigation.

Finally, the only way to be a good note-taker? Take notes! Sit in meetings and try to write down everything that is asked and said. Talk to your family about their day and write it down. Find out what your strengths and shortcomings are and find a system to work around them.

If by now you’re thinking that tape recording your interviews might make all of this unnecessary, you’d best think again — while some investigators record their interviews as a matter of practice, most employers do not permit tape recording of investigative interviews, for some very good reasons. Look for my next article discussing some of those reasons!


Fran S.

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