Oral History Interview Tips & Tricks

Prepare for the Interview

  1. Become familiar with your recording equipment and test it before you begin the interview.
    • Make sure the batteries are fully charged.
  2. Prepare questions before the interview; write them down.
    • Conduct a pre-interview if possible.  Make sure the Interviewee understands what you expect.
  3. Explain to the interviewee
    • The purpose of the interview
    • What will happen with information gathered during the interview
  4. Interview in a quiet, distraction free room and avoid noise from:
    • Fluorescent lights
    • chiming clocks
    • heating and cooling systems
    • ringing telephones and televisions
    • other conversations
  5. Be sure the questions and answers are recorded.
  6. Bring along a notepad and something to write with
    • Jot down follow up notes and questions.
  7. Make sure you have an oral history release form for each individual involved in the interview
  • The interviewee and the interviewer must have a signed release form.

Conducting the Interview

  1. State at the beginning of the oral history interview:
    • Date and place of the interview
    • Name of the person being interviewed
    • Interviewee's birth date
    • Names of the people attending the interview (including the interviewer)
    • The organization you're working with, if any
    • Any general topics you plan to cover in your questions

    For example: Today is Friday, June 7, 2003 and we are interviewing John Smith at his home. Mr. Smith is 78 years old, having been born on November 23, 1923. My name is Jane Doe and I'll be the interviewer. John Smith is my uncle. He is my mother's brother. Today, Uncle John is going to share with us some of his memories from living in Kansas City during the 1950s.

  2. Other tips for making a great interview:
  • Keep the recorder running throughout the interview, unless you are asked to turn it off by the interviewee. Never record secretly.
  • Keep your questions short. Avoid complicated, multipart questions that may be hard to follow.
  • Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Ask "how, when, and why" questions instead.
  • Maintain neutrality during the interview and avoid adding your own opinions. Don't ask leading questions that suggest answers.
  • Encourage the interviewee with nods of the head rather than audible responses such as "yes" or "uh huh" that will be recorded.
  • Don't begin the interview with questions about painful or controversial topics.
  • Allow the interviewee time to answer.  Silence may occur while the interviewee thinks about the question you just asked.  Silence is okay
  • Use your notepad to write down any follow-up questions to help produce more detailed information.  Ask follow-up questions after the interviewee is done answering the question, not during. 

Examples include: When did that happen? Did that happen to you? What did you think about that? What are the steps in doing that?

      • Consider asking the interviewee to show you photographs, commendations, and personal letters as a way of enhancing the interview. Such documents often encourage memories and provoke interesting stories.

    Ending the interview

    1. Add a closing announcement indicating the end of the interview. 

    For example: This is the conclusion of the January 24th, 2014 interview with Allen Smith.  The interviewer was Carrie Smith.

    1. Thank the interviewee for their time.
    2. Return the Generation Exchange kit to your local Generation Exchange agency with:
    • The digital recorder
    • Interview questions
    • Interview summary form
    • Oral history release forms 

    For additional information on oral histories, visit Baylor University’s Institute of Oral History website at http://www.baylor.edu/oralhistory/ and the Minnesota Historical Society’s “How to do Oral History Podcast Series at http://education.mnhs.org/immigration/podcasts