So, you’ve got some family members, neighbors, or friends who you’d like to interview, but you’re not sure how to get started? Fear not! Your How to be a Human co-directors have built this little guide to get you started, and we’ll share oodles of tips that we’ve picked up along the way.
Relax! Conducting an oral history interview is easy, and the rewards are tremendous.
Think about your goals. Are there particular stories or pieces of information that you want to hear about? How important is it for you to make a record of the interview? Jot down a few thoughts about why this is important to you, your family, community, and maybe even future generations.
(Stop reading now. Go get some paper and WRITE!)
Take a look at what you’ve written. Chances are, some of your ideas overlap with one or more of these categories:
~To deepen my connection with my interviewee and understand more about his/her life
~To gather important stories and preserve them for future generations
~To learn more about who I am and where I come from
Cook up your game plan!
Let your goals inform the choices you make about how to go about setting up the interview. For example:
If you want to preserve stories for future generations, you’ll want to think about recording the interview(s). See forthcoming post “notes on recording” for more information. (It’ll be up on the site in a day or two.)
If you want to deepen your connection with your interviewee, OR if you’re hoping to hear stories of a personal or traumatic nature (ex. war stories), it helps to get together more than once. As you and your interviewee become more comfortable, more and more stories will come forward, and your connection will deepen.
Concocting Your Plan:
~Where will you meet? The location should make your interviewee feel comfortable, and should be reasonably private so that you’re not interrupted.
~When will you meet? Think about what time of day your interviewee feels his or her best.
~Would you like to record the interview? Video or audio?
~Will you interview just one person at a time, or invite a small group to come together?
Set up the Interview!
Give your interviewee a call, or talk with him or her in-person if that’s possible. You can even tell her or him that you’ve gotten interested in oral histories because of this wacky theater project in DC that’s being created from interviews with seniors, and it got you thinking about interviewing people in your own life!
In one sentence, tell her or him what you’d like to do, and why. (Hint: take this straight from your goals and game plan!)
Example: “Grandpa, there are so many stories from your life that I’ve never heard, and I’d really love the chance to ask you about your life. Could I come over one day next week?”
If you want to record the interview, make sure to talk about that, too.
Example: “Would it be ok if I brought my video camera? I bet other people in the family would love to hear these stories, too.”
Make your request specific, and if your interviewee says “yes,” set up a date right away. Otherwise, it’s too easy for time to get away from you, and you lose the momentum of this initial conversation.
A day or two before the interview, go through this checklist:
___ Think about/ jot down a few questions you might like to ask to get the conversation started. (Use our sample questions as a springboard.)
___ Test out your recording equipment. Make sure you know how to operate it, and that you’ve got extra batteries and tapes if you need them.
___ Call your interviewee. Make sure they’re feeling good, and remember that you’re coming!
How to have an Awesome Interview:
1. Relax. Smile. Take nice, slow breaths. Comfort is contagious, and the more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your interviewee will be. Make sure your interviewee knows that they can take a break at any time!
2. Set up any technology you’re using, then forget about it. Focus on what’s happening right now, in the room.
3. Slow down. Memories take time to come to the surface. Ask just one question at a time, and then just listen for a while. Avoid the temptation to jump in with a new question as soon as your interviewee finishes a sentence. Usually, there’s A LOT more where their answer came from, and you’ll never hear it if you jump to the next question right away.
4. Go with the flow. Your questions are really just a back-up plan, there to help you if you and your interviewee get stuck. Once the interview starts, you’ll find that the best questions often come to you in the moment, based on something interesting your interviewee said. Ask follow up questions like, “What did you do next?”, or “What did she look like?” or “Who else was there?” that will elicit more details and keep the story going.
5. Keep the focus on the interviewee. Resist the urge to talk about yourself!
6. Respect your interviewee’s boundaries. Never push someone to tell a story she doesn’t want to tell. Instead, focus on building a feeling of safety and rapport. Perhaps, some day in the future, she will decide to tell you—but that will only happen if you’ve respected her wishes.
7. When the interview feels like it’s winding down to an end, thank your interviewee for sharing their stories with you. If it seems like there’s a lot more to talk about, you can suggest the possibility of getting together again in the future to continue the conversation.
Build the movement!
Start out by writing a good, old-fashioned thank-you note to your interviewee. It’s classy, and it’ll make everybody feel good.
Tell your friends and family about your experience. Encourage others to conduct interviews of their own, and feel free to share this guide with them if they need some encouragement.
If your interviewee would like a copy of the session, be sure to provide them with one. Ask how you could share the interview with friends and family. Would it be ok, for example, to show a clip at the next holiday gathering?
Above all, let your inspiration and the needs of your interviewee guide what you do next. The possibilities for this kind of work are staggering!
Please keep us updated about your experiences in the comments section!
Your fellow humans,
Ali Miller and Melanie St. Ours