STEP ONE: Equipment and Setting
Depending on your skill and resources, there are many choices of equipment. Among others, there are laptop computers with built in microphones, video camcorders, digital cameras with video functions, small tabletop cameras that can record up to two hours of audiovisual material, and digital audio recorders of varying sound quality. Recordings made with all of these can be edited on the average home computer using free sound-editing software. The following questions may help you to decide which equipment to use.
- Will you be working alone or with someone who will operate the equipment?
- What are you most comfortable with and capable of operating?
- Will you be doing the editing, and if so, do you have the necessary software and knowledge?
- Is your equipment digital?
If you are working alone, keep it simple. The less time and attention you give to your equipment, the more time and attention you can devote to the interview itself. With or without an assistant, the key is to keep the equipment as unobtrusive as possible so that the interviewee will be able to relax and forget that the interview is being recorded.
While it is best to choose the recording device you are most comfortable with, it is also essential that the person being interviewed agrees to the chosen medium. If, for example, you wish to record video but the interviewee is not comfortable with the presence of a camera, then you will probably have to limit yourself to audio. Respect and cooperation are the foundation of all oral history interviews.
Some editing is always a good idea. For example, eliminating your interview questions can turn your interview into a narrative. However, if you want to do more, but do not have the necessary skills or the desire to learn them, then try to find someone who can help.
Make sure that your equipment is not outdated, such as a cassette tape recorder. Whatever you use must be digital. This will facilitate downloading and editing the interview on your computer, and copying it for family and friends. It will also mean that friends and family will be able to listen to your interview many years from now.
- The room
- Your position
- Sound and light check
- Additional photos
Find a room with as little extraneous noise as possible and eliminate mechanical sources of noise such as refrigerators, overhead fans and computers. These noises are hard to edit out later and often make it difficult to hear the person being interviewed, especially if you do not have a professional quality microphone. Minimize all unexpected noise, turn the ringer off telephones and turn cell phones off completely since even the noise from the vibration setting can be heard on a recording.
Both you and the recording device should be fairly close to the interviewee for the best sound. Sit beside and slightly in front of the camera so that the subject is simultaneously looking at you and the camera as the questions are answered.
Do a sound and light check before beginning the interview. If you are using a video camera, make sure there is no window or door behind the person or you will create a silhouette effect. Bright, natural light is best. Focus the camera’s viewfinder on the interviewee’s upper torso, just above the elbows, and make sure that the interviewee is centred. Ask the interviewee a simple question and record it. Check to see that your recording device is capturing the subject’s voice clearly.
During an interview, memorabilia can act as a powerful memory trigger. If you plan to use some of the interviewee’s memorabilia, identify the objects to be used and ask the interviewee to have them ready.
Even if you are only conducting an audio interview it is wise to take a photo of the person and any memorabilia you decide to use. These images can easily be incorporated into a small CD-sized booklet to accompany your audio interview.
Practice with your equipment. This will reduce stress the day of the interview.
STEP TWO: The pre-interview
You probably already know the person you want to interview but you must still meet with the individual to obtain his or her permission. Sometimes this is easy, but some individuals are shy, self-conscious, or doubt that their life experiences are interesting enough to record. Prepare to be a persuasive.
Stress the value that the interviewee’s stories will have for future generations. Let the person know how much you personally enjoy listening to these stories. Sometimes it helps to have a second family member offer encouragement, but avoid pressuring the person.
Many people refuse to be interviewed out of fear of the unknown, so provide the interviewee with as much information as possible about the process. It also helps to give the individual some sense of control over the project. This includes collaborating on who should (and perhaps should not) be allowed to see the interview and choosing a method of recording that you are both comfortable with. If the person is still unsure, give him or her time to think the idea over.
Once you have obtained the individual’s permission, the next decision is whether to record a full life story or just several episodes from the person’s life. A full life story may take several sessions to complete. And while it offers a more complete picture of the individual’s life, it can become long. Recording just the most interesting stories means that you have to be selective.
If you are not sure what stories will be the most interesting, here are some questions that may help. Be sure to take notes or record the interviewee’s answers during the pre-interview. This will help you to formulate better questions for the actual interview.
Ten General Questions to ask in a pre-interview
Four criteria to help you decide which stories to record
- Stories with clearly remembered details, such as how things smelled, tasted, sounded, or what people said.
- Stories that the interviewee has told before, that are unique to the individual, or that the interviewee’s family has enjoyed hearing many times.
- Experiences that are out of the ordinary or that typify a way of life that no longer exists.
- Stories that evoke strong emotions such as humor, sorrow, joy, anger, or fear, or that have a universal, enduring quality.
STEP THREE: Questions: The art of the Interviewer
Knowing how to listen and how to ask questions are the two most important skills of a good interviewer.
- Arrange questions in chronological order
- Avoid complex questions
- Ask open-ended questions
- Paraphrase where necessary
- Use probing questions
If you want to ask about several different stories, each of them should be arranged chronologically, as well. This will help to prevent the person from forgetting details.
Questions that ask for too much information, such as, “Can you tell us about your favorite aunt, why you liked her so much, and how she inspired you?” tend to confuse the interviewee and result in long, unfocused answers. Instead, ask a series of smaller questions, such as “Can you tell me about your favorite aunt?”
Whenever possible, ask questions that cannot be answered with just one word. Rather than asking, “Do you think society is better or worse today than it was 50 years ago?” ask, “In what ways has society improved over the past 50 years?” Open-ended questions encourage the interviewee to go into greater depth. Some examples of ways to phrase these questions are: “Can you describe…?”; “What was it like when…?”; “What did you do…?”; and “How do you feel about…?”
Use paraphrasing to clarify a statement and/or deepen the line of questioning. For example, “So, if I understand you correctly, you liked the old wood stoves better than the electric ones. Why is that?”
The following phrases are useful ways to begin a question when you want to encourage the interviewee to elaborate on a topic: “Can you elaborate on that?”; “Why do you say that?”; and “What did you learn from that?”
STEP FOUR: Best practices for conducting an interview
STEP FIVE: Producing, preserving and presenting the interview
Editing an interview is an art in itself. It may be useful to have more than one family member help to decide what to keep and what to omit from the edited version. In addition to the edited version, you should also preserve the full, unedited interview for future generations.
All types of media can become corrupted over time. So it is best to save in more than one form, such as on a USB key, a CD, an external hard drive, as well as on your computer.
Respect the privacy of the person you have interviewed. Allow the interviewee to see/hear the final product before distributing it to other family members.
If possible, and if desired, recognize the individual’s contribution by having some kind of celebration to honor the person and the memoir you have created for future generations.