Interviewing someone can be a stressful experience, but when it comes to your family history, it can also be a valuable resource for painting a more detailed picture. People don’t stay forever, and a few really take the opportunity to talk to them about their life, their experiences, and their memories. To help you overcome any questions you may have about conducting an oral history interview with family members, here are 5 quick tips for interviewing someone you know well.
# 1 Start slowly. Starting with a normal conversation will give you and your subject a chance to relax. General questions like: “How was your week?” and “Do you have plans for the weekend?” will put the interviewee in conversation mode. Remember, even if you have an end goal in mind, at the center of it all, you are really just having a conversation.
# 2 Be an active listener. It’s easy to mentally pre-empt the next question when you’re nervous or uncomfortable. Try at all costs not to do that. People can always tell when you are not listening or interested in what they are saying, and letting your mind race it will show on your face, whether you realize it or not.
# 3 Show appreciation. We all like a little recognition, especially in conversation. This goes with the advice on listening. During an in-person conversation, use non-verbal gestures to show that you are interested and understand what the person has to say. Nod, make eye contact, try to keep fidgeting to a minimum. On the phone, we may need a slightly different strategy. While you don’t want to interrupt by saying “okay” and “yes” too often, using them occasionally, especially during a break, can be helpful. Even more helpful is repeating a part of what the subject told you during your response. Using this technique shows that you heard and understood them, and can open the door for them to explain what they were saying in more detail.
One word of caution: whether you are having an interview in person or over the phone, be careful not to interrupt. Nobody likes to be cut off, and that can make us feel like they didn’t care what we were saying. Focus on what the person is saying, slow down, let him finish completely.
# 4 Get over your fear of silence. This can be especially important when interviewing someone older. They may need a moment to jog their memory or they just have nothing to say on the subject. I find this to be especially common when the ice has not been broken properly and the subject is uncomfortable. Ask the question, take a deep breath, wait … you can repeat the question differently if the topic seems confused or skip the topic entirely. But do not worry. This is a natural part of the process and often the most uncomfortable part for the interviewer.
# 5 Keep it open. The most important thing to keep in mind as an interviewer is to make sure your questions are always open. If you ask the topic “Did you enjoy Christmas as a kid?” Your subject will probably say “Yes.” (Unless they say no, and that would be sad.) On the other hand, if you ask “What did you enjoy most about Christmas as a child?” The subject will feel free to describe the toys, the food, the traditions that made the party special. Even if your subject didn’t like Christmas as a child (again, sad), they can probably think of something they enjoyed or a memorable experience they had when you ask the open-ended question. To this end, don’t stick too closely to one script, feel free to ask questions that build on what the subject just said using more open-ended questions. Remember your English class in high school and be sure to address: what, when, how, where and why.
If you keep these five tips in mind, you will have a smooth and productive interview with your family member.