We have all jotted down some notes regarding a conversation—something we wanted to remember or just a simple to-do list. Most of us have never had any training in taking notes, but instead just kind of developed our own style that sort of seemed to work.
Universities recognized that students had little or no training in note taking, so they helped by developing note-taking systems and strategies to help the fledgling students.
When listening to an educator, the student attempts to determine which are the most important points in the lecture to help decide what will be on the upcoming test.
Similarly, when taking notes during an interview, we are looking for clues to help identify whether the person is truthful or untruthful, withholding information, or where additional details might be uncovered through their questioning.
In an investigative LP interview, one of the first areas that will be explored by the interviewer consists of biographical information relating to the subject. This area of discussion will assist the interviewer in establishing the subject’s behavioral norm in areas where they are likely to be giving truthful information.
This portion of the interview helps the investigator become accustomed to the subject’s demeanor, voice patterns, and speed of delivery. The interviewer easily controls this section by asking closed-ended questions to elicit specific information relating to the subject’s background. Typically, we often use a preprinted form to capture this basic information before moving on to the next phases of the interview.
Taking notes during an interview is unlikely to result in an exact transcription of the conversation, even when the witness is also taking notes. Note takers can generally write 25–30 words per minute, but a speaker is talking at 110 to 160 words per minute.
Clearly, contemporaneous note taking will not capture a verbatim response from a subject unless the interviewer continually interrupts the narrative to transcribe everything said.
If capturing everything said during the interview is important, the investigator should consider whether or not the conversation should be recorded. Interrupting the story will impede the individual’s recall of the event. [Editor’s Note: Recording interviews is the subject of a different kind of debate.]
Taking Notes during an Interview: Preparation
Preparation is a key consideration for any interview. Establishing what information the subject might possess and having some idea of the elements involved in the particular incident being investigated will help formulate the topics that are necessary to cover.
Preplanning for the interview can help organize the topics necessary to be covered and even their potential order of importance. Think of the preplanning as a classroom exercise where the syllabus and reading materials provide the general topics likely to be explored during the lecture. Knowing this information would allow the listener to use an outline type of format to take notes during the class.
After the interviewer has established rapport with the individual, they prepare to move into the untainted narrative portion of the subject’s story or alibi. This untainted narrative is the first time the story is offered, and it is likely to lack the detail and depth required by the investigator. This first telling is what the subject feels is important, and this is likely to provide the beginning of a timeline of events relevant to the investigation.
If the person being interviewed is a subject-matter expert concerning business events or processes, then the investigator is looking for background information to compare against what they are told by upcoming interviewees. Some investigators rely on a witness to take contemporaneous notes of the conversation. While this can be effective, we believe an investigator should take their own notes relating to the conversation to assist in recall and evaluation of the subject’s story.
Our general practice is to use a notepad for taking notes during an interview. This provides a relatively large surface to write notes, and the pages remain in chronological order unless removed from the tablet. Moving from page to page, it is wise to number each subsequent page, so the investigator can be certain of their order.
On the first sheet of the notes, we put the subject’s name, date, and the location of the interview. In addition, if there are multiple individuals involved in the story, we assign them a shorthand notation to identify them. For example, subject number one would be identified as S1-Simon Jones, S2-Terry Smith, S3-Colin Barker, and so on until everyone has been assigned a number. This allows the investigator to quickly identify the party being spoken about without confusion. So the investigator might write S1 arrives 8:55 am, and we would immediately know that this is Simon Jones rather than Colin Barker.
Developing a shorthand for commonly used words and phrases will also help to keep up with the subject’s narrative or lengthy answers to questions. For example, we use IDK to indicate “I don’t know” or IDR for “I don’t remember.” If a series of words are an exact quote, they are placed in quotation marks.
We also circle key words to show importance or a need to more fully explore the meaning. We might circle words such as “about,” “usually,” “he appeared nervous,” “he rushed,” or “he was very animated.” They are adjectives, descriptions, or estimates that indicate there may be more information available if the investigator probes. We circle them so as not to interrupt the flow of the subject’s narrative, but also to indicate areas we need to explore more fully.
Critical areas of the interview can be highlighted with a star to the left edge of the paper and a line drawn to the point in the narrative or timeline that is very important. These areas could be verbal statements or physical movements that might indicate areas of stress and need to be explored more fully.
Physical behavioral changes can be indicated by drawing a line across the page to the left side and marking it with an “M” to indicate a movement or large body shift. While we don’t know the reason for the movement, the questioning will return to this area later in the interview to determine if it was random or the result of stress. We don’t generally worry about the exact description of the movement, rather just indicating that one occurred. Think of these movements as possible stress points that need to be more fully explored, rather than indicators of deception.
Formatting the Page
To prepare the notepad for taking notes during an interview, draw a vertical line about 25 percent to the right of the left edge of the paper. Draw a horizontal line from the left side of the paper to the right side of the paper about two inches from the bottom. Effectively, what you have done is made a column on the left and a row at the very bottom of the paper, which leaves a large open area for note-taking to the top right of the paper.
The small column on the left is used to identify areas where there is a significant change in verbal or physical behavior in the story or to note something important that was said. The row at the bottom of the page is used to identify evidence that must be followed up on or possibly an investigative lead contained in the subject’s statements. For example, the investigator might write, “Obtain bank deposits made last three months.” Using this bottom row provides a space for the investigator to capture information they might otherwise forget later on.
The large open area to the right of the page is where we take the notes detailing the subject’s story. If you imagine dividing this space into three columns, we use the far right-hand column as the timeline of the first telling of the story. This is the uninterrupted narrative with as much detail as the subject includes and is the basic outline of the story. As the interviewer begins to use questions to expand the details, they use the second imaginary column to write these details using a horizontal line to show where it fits in the timeline. The third column offers space to capture additional expansion of the details and to show where they belong in the timeline.
One page is often not sufficient to contain all the notes. Considering the timeline, the interviewer then divides the timeline into logical breaking points. The interviewer uses the next pages to expand the details of the narrative of each of these sections. So page two might detail the timeline in much more exquisite detail of the time between the subject’s arrival at work until they logged into the register at opening. The investigator drills down the details during this section and then expands the next section and the next until all the sections of the timeline have been fully explored.
If critical detail must be captured during a subject interview, a recording is the best way to make sure each word is captured. There may be instances where this is impossible or against policy, which makes taking notes during an interview a critical component of capturing the information. The interviewer working with the witness can often establish a clear and comprehensive record of what was said and its context if a recording is not possible.
This article was originally published in LP Magazine Europe in 2017. This post was updated September 10, 2018.