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Preservation Week 2020: Interview Techniques

The Interview

  • Set aside around two hours for the interview so you have time to set up equipment, answer any questions, and conduct the interview. After two hours, both parties tend to lose stamina and focus. Be alert to signs of fatigue or distraction and take a break or schedule another interview session.
  • Location, location, location! Choose a comfortable setting to conduct the interview. Some family members find being recorded stressful, so it's helpful to stage the interview in their favorite chair, room, or setting that will help them feel more empowered. 
  • Choose a quiet place to interview. Sounds become magnified on recordings and conversations can be inaudible in certain settings. Avoid recording in public places or spaces with distracting noises.
  • At the beginning of the recording, introduce yourself and interviewee, the date and the location of the interview. 

General Interview Tips

  • Let the interviewee do most of the talking.  The interviewer will guide the conversation with occasional questions to keep the interview on track. Remember, the focus should be on the interviewee and not the interviewer.
  • Don't interrupt the interviewee once they begin talking. Interruptions break the flow of the conversation and sometimes breaks the concentration of the interviewee. 
  • Ask a question, actively listen, and build on what they say with follow-up questions. Use your outline as a guide and not a script. Actively listen and be prepared to ask follow-up questions, or if something piqued your interest, diverge from the questions completely. If you'd like to hear more, use phrases like, 'How did that make you feel?' or 'What were you thinking in that moment?' or even 'And then what happened?'
  • Build context. Future generations may not be familiar with specific places and people that are mentioned. Set up context where needed by asking questions such as 'Who was Aunty Lei?' and 'Why was she such an influence on you?'
  • The best way to broach sensitive topics is to build up to it by discussing matters that are less threatening but related to it. Another approach is to honestly ask the interviewee before the interview if they would be willing to discuss the issue. Always respect the wishes of the interviewee.
  • Be open to hearing difficult or negative experiences. Although we may want to hear feel-good stories or perhaps we've crafted idealistic narratives of family in our mind, be true to the interviewee's experiences and emotions. Families are complex, and so are people's emotions. Ideally, an oral history interview will allow the interviewee the opportunity to reflect on their life honestly and thoughtfully.
  • Strike a balance between respecting the interviewee's right to tell their story the way they want it told and challenging them if appropriate. Sometimes negative aspects of stories are glossed over or details and underlying subtexts are dropped. When stating objections or trying to elicit more information from the interviewee, raise the issue in a neutral way, such as "I understand what you're saying, but....", "What you say to the objection that..." or "I've heard it said that..."
  • Use objects to spur memories and conversations. Props are a great way of jogging memories or segueing into conversations. You may consider using photos, videos, letters, clothing, objects, music, dance, or scents.
  • Do not be afraid of silence. Give the interviewee time to think and continue after a pause.
  • Relax and let the conversation flow. There is no right or wrong as long as it's meaningful to you.

After the Interview

  • After the interview, write up notes from the interview. Notes should include basic metadata: your name, the name of the interviewee, the date, time, location of the interview. Describe the interview, the setting, and any other events of note that happened before, during, or after the interview. Also, capture your reflections on the interview. 
  • Label and properly store your recordings. Create a label and filing system to organize your recordings. We've all experienced computer malfunctions, technological obsolescence (think of your 8-tracks and floppy discs), or misplacement of devices. To ensure you don't lose your interview, store the recording in several locations.
  • Mahalo your interviewee and schedule your next interview session.  Depending on your relationship with the family member or friend, send them a text, call them up, or write them a letter of appreciation.
Windward Community College Library • 45-720 Keaʻahala Rd. • Kāneʻohe, HI 96744
Content: Creative Commons License Windward Community College Library
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