Top Tips on How to Ask Questions in An Oral History Interview

In oral history, interviews are important as they can convey personality, explain motivation, and reveal inner thoughts and perceptions. To some extent an interview may serve as the only source of information available about a certain event, person or period of time. This is why it is vital that an interviewer/oral historian be well prepared to interview the interviewee to get the most out of the interview.

In a previous blog we looked briefly at the sequence of oral history, what to do before, during the interview and after the interview. In this blog we’ll look at top tips on how to handle the interview part of the sequence in order to get the most out of it.

Here are the tips;

Try and find a quiet place to conduct your interviews where you won’t be bothered by external distractions, such as car honks, trains. Turn off your cellphones and if you have children, keep them busy or find a sitter who can keep them busy as you conduct your interviews.  You want to give your interview your full attention.

Explain to the interviewee the purpose of the interview. Let them have a look at the oral history consent form, that if they chose to, should sign. The consent form should contain details of the interview, their legal rights, how the interview will be used and that they are liberty to walk away at any time or not answer any questions they are not comfortable answering.

Start with easy questions just to get the ball rolling. Like what their name is, where they were born and what they do for a living.

Ask open-ended questions, as this will allow the interviewee to do most of the talking and it encourages them to provide detailed information as well as allow for unlimited responses.  

Avoid closed-ended questions. Because you want to keep the conversation going and encourage the interviewee to share details, they may have forgotten about by nudging them to keep speaking and this can seldom be done with closed-ended questions.

Avoid leading questions as they push the respondents to answer in a specific manner that the questioner desires. Oral history is about getting the details from the narrator, you as an oral historian are there to gather information and learn in order to portray the data as accurately as possible and not add to the narrator’s experience as this will taint your research.

Ask simple questions and avoid bombarding them with too many questions. As an interviewer, it might get a little exciting learning all this information but overwhelming them with all your excitement and excessive questions isn’t going to bring out the most from the interview. All it might do is just end up being one confusing interview.

Try asking follow-up questions. Follow-up questions help you identify additional aspects that can make a difference in an interview.

Silence shouldn’t bother you too much. Don’t rush them in answering questions, but instead let the interviewee have some time to think about answers. If they take too long to answer you can politely ask the narrator if they’d like the question phrased in another way. You can also suggest that you come back to the question later.

As you go through your questions during the interview, take note of how your narrator responds best to your questions and try using that style of questioning in possible follow-up interviews.

Any interview that goes beyond the two hour mark may end up being draining and kill one’s concentration. Ask your narrator if they’d like to take a break.  If they do, write down the last question or point before the break so that you can ease back into the interview without too much confusion.

Provide feedback through nonverbal cues, such as nodding, smiling, and listening attentively. Avoid too many verbal communications such as mmm-hmm, Uh-huhs.

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications or politely question information that you may find incorrect.  Allow them to clarify the answer.

Ask the narrator to spell out names of people or places you may not be familiar with. It enables accuracy and avoids any spelling problems you might experience later on. This is also essential for transcription purposes.

If you have visuals, you can incorporate them into the interview process. You can also encourage the narrator to bring visuals if it will help in jogging their memory and explaining experiences better.

End the interview gracefully. Ask them if they have any questions of their own and for permission to get in touch for further clarifications. As well as if they are open to a follow-up interview.

I do hope this blog was helpful. Check out my blog on the Four Key Elements of an Oral History Interview that will be helpful as well in conducting your interviews. Please contact us for any of your transcription needs and any questions you may have. Remember, always be kind try to stay positive and learn to unwind

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