On the topic of oral history, perhaps nothing has been more explored than how to successfully conduct an interview itself. Numbered lists of best practices abound (like the one below). However, you will discover as soon as you begin to conduct interviews that it is impossible to anticipate exactly how an interview will proceed. You are different from the interviewers who created their suggestions, and your interviewee will be different than the interviewees they interviewed. Even if you interviewed the same person as someone else, the interviews will be markedly different from each other.
The lists below should be taken as advice. You will learn how to adapt the suggestions to your individual needs. The lists have been adapted from the Utah State Historical Society’s “How to Conduct an Oral History Booklet.” They have been modified to match the technological changes and to incorporate insights from Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History and Donna M. Deblasio’s Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History. We strongly recommend reading chapters three and five of those books, respectively, for a more in depth treatment.
Some of these will be repeated in specific instructions, but they bear repeating.
- Indicate empathy when appropriate. This does not mean that you have to agree with your interviewee’s views. But you should show you are not a robot, and you care about what they have to say.
- Show appreciation for your narrator’s help. They’re sacrificing their time to share their story. Even if your interview does not turn out as you hoped, you lose nothing by being kind, and can lose a lot of opportunities by being discourteous.
- Listen carefully. Anything that indicates you aren’t listening to your interviewee is going to hurt the interview. Don’t stare at the wall, into space, fiddle with your recorder, etc. You may have to take notes or brief checks to make sure equipment is functioning, but it is good practice to tell your interviewee that you may need to do these things beforehand. Focus on the interviewee’s words, not on what you’re going to ask next.
- Follow your narrator’s pacing and direction. Interviews will rarely proceed as planned. An interviewee may not want to discuss certain topics, or will want to emphasize certain events or times more than others. You don’t want to let people go all over and on wide tangents, but sometimes there is a reason for the path they’re taking in their narrative. It’s often easier to let someone finish an irrelevant story then it is to cut them off. Follow your instincts here, but be polite, regardless.
- Explain the reason for change in topic. This helps prevent confusion when you’re changing.
- Use a two-sentence format when introducing a line of questions. This is a technique that the oral historian Charles Morrisey champions. State the situation, then the question. For example: “Your novel was considered groundbreaking for its use of point of view. What led you to that situation?” This frames the situation, and makes your intentions and topics clearer.
- Probe when appropriate. Sometimes people won’t speak on topics without being prodded, often because they are uncomfortable sharing or simply because they don’t think you will be interested. Sometimes you can open up new topics by carefully addressing them, other times this will shut people down. You’ll have to judge each situation on your own.
- Use follow-up questions when more information is needed. Prepare follow-up questions to your initial question. This can be done by planning questions beforehand and by practicing good listening. Be sure to explore interesting aspects that you didn’t initially anticipate, as these can be some of the richest veins of information.
- Ask challenging questions in a sensitive manner. Usually people do not want to discuss things that make them look bad. You should not delve into controversy or painful subjects until you’ve built some rapport and allowed the interviewer to get comfortable. In this case, they may address the topic on their own. The two sentence method can also help ask these sorts of questions by shifting the blame. For example, “Reporter X called you a war criminal for your role in the battle of Y. What is your take on that event?” is easier for someone to respond to and give their point of view than “Would you describe yourself as a war criminal?” given that they are now free to give their response to an acknowledged critic rather than feel like they are being attacked.
- Request clarification when needed. If something isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask.
“Don’ts” are often more nuanced than “Do’s” in oral history interviewing. There is a time for many of these don’ts, but they must be done carefully and tactifully.
- Interrupt the narrator. You risk throwing off trains of thought or missing information if you constantly interject your thoughts or ask questions before someone is done answering. Silence can be your friend, as it gives people time to think, and your silence can show you expect more. Avoid the tendency to think of silence in an interview as a bad thing.
- Keep repeating what the narrator has just said. It can be useful to check that you understand with a “let me see if I got all that…”, but to parrot the other person can clutter your interview and transcript.
- Infer something the narrator has not said. This is tricky, actually, since reading silences, gestures, etc., is an important part of analyzing and shaping an interview. But don’t think you necessarily understand something that wasn’t said.
- Fail to pick up on a topic the narrator indicates is important. Some interviews will be shaped less by your questions and more about what someone wants to talk about. You shouldn’t let the interview run away from you, necessarily, but if someone wants to emphasize some events and not others, try to make that work for you, rather than work against you.
- Make irrelevant, distracting comments. Not only does this break the flow of the interview, it also makes the transcript and recording muddier. Avoid “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” and the like. Instead, nod, make eye contact, and show facial expressions to indicate you are engaged (though there certainly is a time and a place for appropriate vocal reactions).
- Ignore narrator’s feelings and fail to give empathic response. See the instructions under Do #1.
- Fail to check the sound on the recorder. Do this before the interview starts, and check the limits and the background noise. Generally, it’s good to interview with headphones so you can hear how the recording is working as the interview goes. Just make sure to let the interviewee know why you have an earphone in.
- Let the narrator sidetrack the conversation with a long monologue on an irrelevant topic. Again, it’s dangerous to preempt what appears to be a sidestory. However, if it’s clear you really are on a tangent, it is appropriate to politely steer the conversation back to your topic. Other times, it’s easier to bite the bullet, as some stories interviewees really want to tell.
- Ask a leading question. Don’t be a reporter by trying to influence the answer with leading questions. “Tell me about your relationship with Ronald Reagan” is much better than “Was Ronald Reagan a great friend/jerk?” People will answer leading questions how they anticipate you want them to. Let them say what they want to say.
- Ask several questions at the same time. People will invariably get lost if you ask too many questions at once. Take one at a time.
To Start the Interview
- Situate yourself and the respondent in comfortable positions, keep the recorder within easy reach, but not so that the respondent will be too conscious of it. Try to avoid distractions, interruptions, and background noises from radios, television sets, traffic, or birds—or at least minimize them if they can’t be avoided.
- Begin the interview with identifying information: name the interviewer, the respondent, the date, the place, and the subject of the interview. A conversational style will provide a nice transition between the informal conversation and the interview which follows, establishing the basis for an easy flow between questions and answers.
- Be sure to check the time and to know how the time is going. Ensure you have ample space on your SD card for the interview.
- Unless other circumstances dictate (such as a particularly rich source that you can only speak to once), interviews should not be scheduled for longer than an hour or hour and a half.
During the Interview
- Remind yourself that the interview is not intended to show off your knowledge—though you must appear knowledgeable to the respondent—but to elicit from the respondent clear responses to your questions. Above all, do not dominate the conversation with displays of knowledge.
- Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Useful leads include: “What led up to…?” “Tell me about…” “What did you feel when…? and “I would like to hear about…”
- Ask only one question at a time; that is, avoid running questions together or protracting them so that the respondent is confused regarding which one to answer.
- Keep your questions brief and to the point.
- Start with non-controversial matters, saving more delicate ones until good rapport has been established.
- Don’t let periods of silence fluster you; the respondent needs time to think.
- Don’t worry excessively about a question that seems to be clumsily worded. A little fumbling by the interviewer may help to put the respondent at ease.
- Do not interrupt a good story simply because another question has occurred to you or because the respondent has wandered from the planned framework of questions. If you do, valuable remembrances might escape. Try to find gentle ways and the appropriate time for pulling the conversation back on track.
- To help the respondent describe persons, ask about their appearance, then about their personality, character, and activities. Robert Caro asks “What would I see if I were there?” To help get vivid descriptions.
- Remember that persons being interviewed are likely to give more interesting and more vigorous responses to questions or statements that imply uncertainty on your part than to ones that suggest that you are merely seeking agreement. Statements like “I’m not sure I understand” and “This can be confusing to someone who wasn’t there” may elicit useful information.
- Try to establish where the respondent was at the time of the events being described, as well as his or her role in them. Determine whether the respondent was a participant or a passive witness.
- Use the interview to verify information gained from other sources. Do not take issue with accounts given by the respondent even if you believe another version to be more accurate. Be content to elicit as much information as possible, possibly offering alternative versions: “Some people say…” or “I have heard…” or “According to…” You can decide later which version of a story is accurate.
- Try to avoid off-the-record comments; try instead to get the respondent to speak in terms that permit the statement to be part of the record. Sensitive materials can be protected by closing the recording for an agreed-upon period of years—that is, by sealing it so that researchers will not have access to it until the material in question is less sensitive. It is better to have such material recorded and waiting for later use than to let it escape entirely.
- Do not interrupt the respondent unless the story strays too far from its course. Interruptions, when necessary, should begin with statements like “Let’s go back to where you…” or “A moment ago you were telling me about…”
- Avoid turning the machine off and on unless the respondent becomes unduly agitated or uncommunicative. Having some irrelevant material on the track is better than losing the flow of the conversation by switching the recorder off and on again. However, if someone has a question about whether they can pursue a topic, it is appropriate to pause the recording, determine if they are comfortable recording said topic, then resume the recording. Just make sure you remember to start the recording again!
- If there are interruptions, a telephone call, a visitor, etc., then turn off the machine and start up again when the informant is ready.
- Be alert to points in the interview when special factual information is brought out. Take note of this information by writing it down. Asking the respondent to spell names is not at all inappropriate. Accuracy is more important than an uninterrupted interview.
- Use photographs, clippings, or other documents to encourage the respondent to talk about persons or events that are of particular interest to you and about which his or her memory might need some jostling. Asking respondents to dig out photographs and other memory-prompting materials before the interview may be a way of inviting them to think about the topics you want to discuss. If possible, make copies of these documents and include them with the recording when you deposit it in the archives.
- At the end of the interview, repeat the identifying information: the interviewer, the respondent, the date, the place, and the subject of the interview. This is conventional in oral histories, and marks an interview as complete.
After the Interview
- Don’t rush out. Some people will feel a need to further unpack the interview once the recording is over. Listening is both courteous, and something you can note in your field notes, even if it isn’t on the recording.
- Secure the written permission of the respondent to use the recording and transcription.
- Record the identifying information in writing to be placed in an interview file. On the same file should be a summary of the major topics discussed, along with the time in the interview when discussion begins. The time-topic index makes the tape useful to researchers before a typed transcript becomes available. Such an index is useful even when the researcher is also the interviewer.
- Back up the recordings in several locations in case of file failure or corruption. Identify how the recordings will be stored and made available.
- Arrange for the recording to be transcribed.