Five Tips For Your Oral History Interview

1. Simplify your questions. 

Make each question as short as possible. This allows your interviewee to really consider it and tell you exactly what you need to know. Even think about how you phrase the question.

“Do you remember how often…?” or “Would you have gone to X?” may be confusing, so clear past or present tenses work well. For example: “What’s your favourite memory of your childhood?” “When did you do X?” “Who was your favourite sister?” Break your question up into short parts that he/she can easily digest.

2. Be patient.

Give your interviewee as much time as is needed. Take an hour out of your day just to speak to this person. If they feel rushed or pressured, they won’t feel comfortable enough to give you a proper answer, so settle them in, make them a cup of tea or coffee, and give them a comfy chair. It’s also a good idea to brief them on the topics you want to ask about – this way, they’ll have a few stories in mind to tell you before you’ve even begun.

Oral history

3. Respond enthusiastically to your interviewee.

It might be the first time they have ever told anyone that story. Encourage them to open up to you. Nod as they chat to you and share this moment – laugh with them, sympathise, understand. Show that you’re listening and you care what they have to say. If necessary, repeat a question or phrase it another way to find out what you need to know.

4. Have a recording device so you can make eye contact with them. Jot down a few key words or notes.

There’s nothing like eye contact to reassure someone. Keep track of the conversation by writing important names or themes as you go – interject at a pause if you aren’t sure of a spelling or the name of a location. Write up a transcript of the interview after, so if you have to delete the recording at short notice, you still have your written document. Ask to see any photos and family records they may have.

Oral history

5. Follow up if you’re unsure of anything.

This is your chance to clarify. Listen back to the interview – was it muffled at any point? Did you miss something? Do you need more explanation about a particular story or person? Call your interviewee back with a short list of further questions. Don’t worry that you’ll look stupid for ringing again: they’ll probably be delighted you took the time to check and get the facts right.

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