Daniel D. Beck

When notes aren’t enough: how to record subject-matter experts

Sometimes you need to have a small meeting or one-on-one interview with an expert and your loose note-taking style isn’t going to be enough. Maybe you need to capture especially detailed or visually demanding information, or the expert is a known fast talker. Recording is one solution, but asking to do it can be awkward and risky.

If you ask poorly, they might say no or be offended, which would be embarrassing. Or they might feel pressured to say yes, which, if you’re anything like me, feels even worse. Either way, the ensuing conversation is going to be uncomfortable. And that’s apart from the natural suspicion of being recorded.

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing based on user interviews and I want to be able to quote the people that I interview verbatim. When I first started doing this, the way I introduced recording was terrible. It made me nervous and uncomfortable, and who knows how it made my interviewees feel.

By necessity, I had to get better at recording these meetings. I was relieved to learn that there are ways to record that can make the situation comfortable and easygoing. I’ve found a pattern that works for me and I bet it can work for you.

Before you press record

Before you start recording, make sure you’re prepared.

First, never, ever record a conversation without every participant’s consent. At best, recording without permission is a jerk move. At worst, it’s a criminal offense. Don’t do it. Similarly, know your company or client’s policy about recording meetings. Don’t risk your job over what’s ultimately a convenience.

Recording is best suited to small, one-on-one conversations. Don’t bother recording large meetings: recording quality suffers and it’s difficult to get meaningful consent. For large meetings, bring along an assigned note taker instead (or an actual stenographer, if you can swing it).

If it’s reasonable for your work environment, plan to hold your meeting wholly remotely, or ask an additional person to join the conversation remotely. This has two benefits. First, there will necessarily be an active camera and microphone in the meeting, eliminating the surprise element of additional equipment (and most people are used to being on a webcam). Second, it’s likely easier to record voices, faces, and screens with your video conferencing tools than it is to set up extra equipment in a conference room (BlueJeans, Skype, and Zoom all have built-in recording, for example).

Before the meeting, practice using your recording tools. You should be able to start, pause, and end your recording without disruption.

Extend an invitation

My trick to a positive recording experience is to ask for permission to record at the right time, in a way that offers everyone the safety of saying no while removing barriers to saying yes.

Before you ask, make sure you’ve made any introductions and that you’ve gone over the agenda (you do have an agenda, don’t you?). When you’ve gotten to the point when you want to record the conversation, only then ask for permission. But you have to do more than ask, “May I record?” You must give your interview subject everything they need to make an informed choice.

When I ask, I try to go through this sequence:

  1. Announce my intent to ask for permission.
  2. Explain why I want to record (for my benefit and theirs).
  3. Say who will have access to the recording and what will happen to the recording later.
  4. Offer the option to say no.
  5. Ask for permission.

It sounds a bit like this:

Before we continue, I’m going to ask for your permission to record our call. This is to reduce the number of follow up questions and so I can focus on you instead of my notes. If we do record, only Client Smith and I will have access to the recording and, after I’ve written the document we’re working on, I’ll delete it. “No” is a totally acceptable answer, but if you’re OK with it, may I start the recording?

It may seem like a bit of a mouthful, but that’s to your benefit: it gives the person you’re asking a moment to really think about what you’re asking and its implications. Following this pattern, I’ve yet to have anyone decline to record and, better still, I’ve reduced the awkwardness to below-detectable levels.

Nevertheless, I try to make sure we have a smooth transition from the formality of starting a recording. Depending on the audience, I might make a joke about it (I’m not above using “OK everybody, just act natural” to get a cheap laugh). Either way, I try to follow up with an easy question to get the conversation back on track.

Recording a meeting doesn’t have be fraught. Avoid asking an awkward question. Instead, make an appealing invitation.