Digital Oral History Projects - Interviewing Tips

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Interviewing Tips

background information.  Talk first with friends and family members of the interviewee in order to get an idea of important life events. Your interview subject may not always mention significant incidents. Do background research from books and newspapers - enough to generate questions you will need to ask about the topic.

When you contact the interviewee to schedule the interview, let him or her know as much as possible what you will be asking about so he or she will be able to think about what they might say beforehand. Check that the interviewee will be comfortable talking about the topics that you want to cover in the interview.

Obtain recording equipment. Learn to use it before you go to your interview. Be extremely familiar with your recorder before you begin. Test the equipment by doing a brief practice interview with a friend in advance. Be sure that the volume of the interviewee’s voice is loud enough to be heard clearly.

Arrange the interview in a quiet location where you will not be interrupted.  Turn off phones.

Before the interview, be sure to have the interviewee sign the Oral History Release Form.

Prepare brief, open-ended questions. Anticipate that you should talk less than 20% of the time. You want interesting stories and descriptions, not just short answers to questions. Work from an outline, not formal questions.

Encourage the interviewee to answer freely. Provide adequate time for responses. This sets a conversational tone for the interview. Allow for changes in the order of information or events. Fill in gaps as the interview progresses and organize the information later. The important thing is to put the interviewee at ease.

Eye contact and a pattern of concentrated listening are vital to the oral history interview. Let the interviewee know that you're listening. Lots of interviewers will nod silently or simply say "uh-huh" or "I see".

Pay close attention to your interviewee's answers. Many new interviewers are so worried about the next question that their minds are racing ahead rather than listening attentively to what the interviewee is saying. Don't worry if your questions are not worded beautifully; in fact, sometimes it's better if they're not, because that gives the interviewee the message that her/his answers don't have to be worded perfectly, either.

Ask for examples and descriptions.  If the interviewee mentions something briefly that sounds like it might be interesting to hear more about, ask a follow-up question like: “Can you give an example of that?”, “Can you describe what that was like?”, “How did that feel?”, or just: “Can you tell me more about that?

Be flexible.  Do not be concerned with following a set, preconceived order of topics. Your interviewee may introduce a topic that you had not planned to discuss. If she or he skips a subject you want to explore further, remind yourself to return to it later in the interview. You can write short notes during the interview to track topics & ideas.

Do not feel compelled to interrupt silences. Give the interviewee time to answer each question fully or finish her/his train of thought. Silence is an integral, important part of the oral history interview process.

After the interview, make sure you know where the file is saved and include your name as part of the file name. Be sure you know how to upload the video to a computer.

If possible, take some photos of the interviewee after the interview is completed.  Find out if the interviewee has old family or other photos that could be scanned and used for the project.

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