Tips on Conducting Witness Interviews

Conducting a successful witness interview in the course of an investigation is essential to obtain full and accurate information. Recording interviews and documenting them using audio transcription services frees the investigator of having to take detailed notes and focus on actively listening to the witness. Audio-recording and transcribing interviews also promote accountability on the part of both interviewer and interviewee. However, problems in conducting interviews can limit interviewer and witness performance and lead to ineffective communication, affecting the client’s interest. Here are eight expert tips for maximizing the effectiveness of investigative interviews.

  • Develop rapport: The first step is to introduce yourself. Tell the interviewee your name and who you represent. Explain that the reason for the interview is to establish the facts for your case. Be friendly and establish rapport at the outset. Witness interviews are often conducted on the telephone. Good telephone etiquette can elicit useful information even from an uncooperative or hostile witness.
  • Treat the interviewee with dignity and respect: Interviewers should ensure respect for dignity, respect for rights and concern for needs. Witnesses should be treated in a polite and courteous manner. Avoid intimidation as it can be counter-productive and have disastrous outcomes.
  • Prepare well: To conduct a productive interview, prepare well. Have a clear idea about the goals of the investigation and develop a proper plan to achieve those objectives. Know what information is needed to understand and assess the issues and how the witness can throw light on the matter. Make a list of the key points and review the discussion to see if these were covered.
  • Avoid using investigative jargon: Phrase the questions in a way that the witness will understand. In other words, avoid using investigative jargon or technical terms that may confuse the interviewee. Asking simple, direct questions is the best way to elicit reliable information. Careless use of terms or phrases may evoke negative connotations, or cause the person to become more defensive and less cooperative, says Emil Moschella, a career investigator and former FBI executive (www.compliance.com). Inform the witness that their comments will be kept confidential to the extent possible.
  • Be flexible: Be prepared to use an interview style that will suit the witness. Lawyers interview different types of people and adapting your style to suit the witness can create a good impression. Use a conversational style instead of conducting the interview like a deposition.
  • Allow the witness to speak freely, but stay in control: Allowing the witness to speak freely can bring forth important information. However, at the same time, you should facilitate a discussion of the topics that are relevant to the case you are handling. Don’t let the discussion go off tangent. Ask open-ended questions that promote conversation, and then follow-up with questions that clarify the witness’s statements. Never try to manipulate the witness’s statements or suggest alternatives.
  • Listen actively: Listening is one of the most neglected interview skills. Good listening involves much more than simply hearing the witness’s voice. According to a 2010 article published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, active listening implies analyzing the witness’s choice of words, tone, and body language. Active listening conveys to the witness that you are actually listening to their story.
  • Be professional: According to Al Bassett, JD, a former Special Agent and Executive in the FBI and Assistant Inspector General of Investigations, a lot hinges on how questioners dress and present themselves. He states, “When conducting an investigation, it is critical to always project a professional image, beginning with one’s attire. An interview is a formal business meeting and those conducting interviews should dress and act accordingly. Dressing down in jeans or other casual clothing in a business setting does not project a professional image. Those interviewed are not friends, and therefore investigators should not dress and act as if the interview was a social meeting” (www.compliance.com). The demeanor of the interviewer is important to the outcome of the interview. If the interviewer appears competent and professional, it will likely encourage respect from the individual being interviewed. It may also reduce anxiety in innocent parties, and increase anxiety in those who have something to hide”.

Investigative interviews can be audio-or video-recorded with the consent of the party/parties involved. Audio-recordings will allow the investigator to prove that the interview was conducted in an appropriate and professional manner, and that the witness provided the information of their own free will. This will improve the efficiency of the investigation process. Legal transcription outsourcing can ensure an accurate and indisputable record of the discussion in quick turnaround time. Partnering with an experienced provider of audio transcription services will free the investigator from the burden of producing notes, save time, and focus on learning the truth.