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The Art of Interviewing

Our oral history kit contains
questions and advice for recording
a family's untold stories

Talk Isn't Cheap. Getting it Right in Your Interview.

An oral history interview is more than just a conversation. With a few simple techniques for conducting a great interview, you can learn more about your family and get an inside look at the past.

The most important difference between an interview and a conversation is that the roles are uneven. In conversation, one person tells a story or makes a point, and then listens while the other person has a turn. In an oral history interview, one person asks all the questions and the other person tells all the stories.

Interviewing can take a little getting used to. It takes a little practice to remember to just listen rather than chiming in with your own memories. It makes a big difference though. As the interview goes on, the person you're interviewing will remember more and give richer, more thorough answers to your questions.

Some Oral History Interview Tips:

  1. Stay Quiet

  2. Take Notes, but Manage Expectations

  3. Time Yourself

  4. Watch Your Technology

  5. Be Prepared for the "What Ifs" of Interviewing

1 Stay Quiet

Silence is a powerful interviewing tool. When the person you're interviewing finishes answering a question, don't rush in with the next question right away. Sit quietly for a moment. Sometimes the richest answers come in that moment of silence, as the person starts chatting to fill the silence and ends up reliving a memory.

There is another important reason to stay quiet during an oral history interview — the recording. In everyday conversation, it's natural to say, "yeah" or "uh huh" while the other person is talking. During an oral history interview, though, your goal is to record what the other person says, not yourself agreeing. Whenever you can, nod or smile instead of talking.

2 Take Notes, but Manage Expectations

Most oral historians take handwritten notes during interviews. Not everyone agrees about this. With modern technology, some oral historians prefer to rely on the recording so they can make eye contact and act more naturally during the interview. Generally, though, notes are still the best policy. If you have a recording equipment disaster or something happens to your tapes or CDs or files, your handwritten notes serve as a back-up record of your interview. Taking notes also helps you listen and focus during the interview.

As you're sitting down to start the interview, it's a good idea to make sure the person you'll be interviewing knows what to expect from you. Explain that you will be taking notes and reading your questions, which means sometimes you'll be looking down when they’re talking instead of making eye contact.

Make sure the person being interviewed knows that you'll be listening carefully even when you're looking away.

3 Time Yourself

It's your responsibility to manage your time and make sure you're getting the answers you're looking for, while allowing the person you're interviewing to talk freely.

As you're taking notes and reading your questions, try to have a watch or clock where you can see it but where it isn't distracting. You might take your wrist watch off before you start the interview and hold it in your hand so it's easy to glance at without moving your head.

Keep an eye on how many questions you have left and how long each answer is taking. If the interview is taking longer than you expected, you'll have to decide if you’ll need to ask for a second interview or if you want to skip some of your questions to get to the topics that are most important to you.

4 Watch Your Technology

Timing is important for another reason, as well — you need to know when your tape will run out or when to put in a new memory card, so that the machine won’t stop recording without you noticing.

When your recording equipment is about to stop or you need to stop to change tapes or something else, try to find a natural stopping place in the interview before you run out of time. Just explain that you have to stop for a moment to put in a new tape or add memory.

Then, while you're working with your equipment, tell your interviewee what a great job he or she is doing and how much you appreciate their time. If the person you're interviewing starts telling a new story or continuing an answer before you're ready, you can say, "That's just the kind of answer I'm looking for. Hold that thought while I get this ready for us."

5 Be Prepared for the "What Ifs" of Interviewing

Interviews can be unpredictable. You don't know what you'll learn, and you don't always know what will happen. Here are a few tips for handling the unexpected.

What if the person I’m interviewing keeps getting off topic and changing the subject?
Don't worry. This happens often. Try never to interrupt a story, even if it seems off topic to you. Just listen carefully to see if the story is answering other questions you have. When the story is over, ask your original question again in slightly different words. Be carefully not to make your interviewee feel bad about changing the subject — it's your job to keep track of what you've covered and what questions haven’t been answered yet, not theirs.

If your interviewee keeps coming back to the same story again and again, maybe because they're trying to convince you of something they think you disagree with or because they’re defensive about something that happened in the past, it's okay to say, "We've got that story recorded and I'm looking forward to listening to it again when we're finished, but I really want to learn more about..." and then re-introduce the topic you were asking about.

What if the person I'm interviewing starts telling stories before I've even started the interview or gotten my equipment set up?
Just say, "That's just the kind of thing I want to hear about, but I don't want to miss it. Hold that thought while I get set up!"

Keep in mind that staying silent encourages people to talk. So, if you chat casually until you're ready to start the interview, you won't accidently encourage your interviewee to start without you.

What if the person I’m interviewing gives short, boring answers?
The first thing to try when someone isn't giving thorough answers is silence. Just sit quietly after their answer for a bit longer than feels comfortable at first. Sometimes they'll continue answering just to fill silence.

It can also help to ask simple follow-up questions, "Can you talk a little more about that?" If "What do you remember...?" questions aren't getting great answers, vary your wording a little. Try, "Can you tell a story about...?"

Sometimes an interviewee is just worried that their stories might bore you. Be encouraging and make it clear that you really do want to hear more.

If you're really getting nowhere, try skipping to another section of questions. Some people remember their childhood very well, and others don't. Some people focused a lot of attention on their work and remember it well, and others focus more on raising children or other activities. If you're not getting the quality of answers you want, try a few questions about another topic to warm up. Come back to the questions you skipped later, when the interview has picked up a little.

What if the person I’m interviewing gets upset?
Don't worry. Remember that sometimes talking about a painful memory can be a relief, even if it's upsetting.

If you aren't that comfortable with emotions or tears, it's okay to just say, "I'll give you a minute" or ask if the person you're interviewing would like to take a break to calm down. Be sure to reassure them that it's no problem and that you're sympathetic.

Sometimes emotional topics can bring out the most powerful oral history moments. If you get a little emotional yourself, that's fine. That can even build trust and make the interview even better. Just stay quiet, but do what you can to let the person you’re interviewing know that you're sympathetic. You can reach out and put a hand on a shoulder or a knee or hold their hand for a minute and listen to whatever comes up.

What if the person I’m interviewing wants to tell a story "off the record"?
It's not uncommon in an oral history interview, once you've built up some trust by being a great listener and asking knowledgeable questions, for the person you're interviewing to ask to tell you a story that won't be recorded.

Sometimes, the person just isn't sure if it’s the kind of story you want to record and they just need a little reassurance that you would like to record it. Sometimes, the person is embarrassed or afraid of embarrassing someone else with a story. Either way, let them start the story and then say, "Actually, I'd really like to record this story. Would it be okay if I did record it?" They might say yes, in which case you just listen and ask follow-up questions as you would with any story.

If the person still says no, you can't record the story, it's okay to let them tell you. Take it as a sign that you've gained their trust, which is a compliment to your abilities as an interviewer. Then, as long as no one will be hurt by keeping the story secret, do your best to forget the story and not to worry about it.

Checklist: The Day of the Interview

Did you?

  • Confirm your appointment and choose a comfortable, quiet location?

  • Review your research?

  • Prepare and practice your questions?

  • Test your equipment?

  • Ask the person you're interviewing about any photos or other family materials from his/her collection you might be able to look at or even borrow or keep?

Do you have?

  • Contact information for your interviewee, just in case?

  • Gas in your car?

  • All your audio and/or video equipment, including extra extension cords, batteries, tapes, memory cards or disks?

  • A camera to take regular photos?

  • Your permission forms?

  • Any photos or artifacts you’d like to ask about?

  • Your interview questions

  • Paper and pencils or pens

After the Interview