This continues the ideas of my fellow storytellers on the topic of Staying Alive with Oral History
storytellers had articles deserving of publishing on this topic. Part 2 was by
Judy Schmidt, of the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild. This is Part 3 with Canadian
storyteller, Renee Englott, from Edmonton in Alberta. Part 4 will be the bibliography including Lynn Rubright's book.
Renee breaks the interview process into three parts: Framing Questions; Tips for Shaping and Conducting an Interview; and After the Interview.
A mix of open and closed question will work best. Too many open ended
questions will result in an interview without direction.
of open and closed format for the same questions:
religion important to your family?
you serve as a soldier during WWII?
me about religious observances in your family…
did you do during WWII?
Examples of questions that elicit 1.
DESCRIPTIVE, 2 NARRATIVE or 3 REFLECTIVE response:
Describe how the ice was prepared each year….
What did Mr. X do next?
Why do you think it was done that way?
Sometimes it is a good idea to start out with an open-ended question on a
given topic to give the interviewee a chance to decide what to talk about. Then
you can ask more specific or closed questions to elicit further information:
was it like to go to King Edward School?
games did you play?
was your grade 3 teacher?
Be as objective as possible in asking questions to avoid suggesting a
required or preferred response:
WHAT, HOW? WHERE? WHY? WHEN? are all objective questions.
Ask neutral rather than leading questions:
must have been pleased on election night?
disapproved of dancing after midnight then?
it true that Mr X was a difficult employer?
most of these barns built during the 1920s?
me how you felt on election night?
did you feel about dancing after midnight?
did Mr. X treat his employees?
were most of these barns built?
Negative versus Positive Connotation in word choice – particularly
important around sensitive issues.
Tips for Shaping and conducting an interview
1. Chat easily as you set up your
2. Discourage third parties;
identify everyone who will be participating if more than one interviewee is
3. Run a test as you talk to check
everything is working and volume is set correctly etc. indicate that the
interview is now ready to begin. Leave lead time if using a cassette tape.
4. Formally start the
interview with an introduction:
it should state who the interviewer is, (if the interview is on behalf of an
organization say so), who the interviewee is, where it is taking place, date
giving year. You might consider indicating something of why the interviewee is
being interviewed. E.g. “ Mrs. Fornelli was the president of the X Community
League for 25 years and the organizer of the X festival in 1965.”
5. Start out with
easy open ended questions.
Tell me a little about growing up in X, your family – whatever you think will
get the interviewee relaxed and focussed. Sometimes this proves too open ended
and it is preferable to start with “Where and when were you born?” This is
something that everyone has no hesitation with and it often works to get
someone settled into answering questions.
6. Then move to more
general questions to lead you to the focus of the interview.
7. Ask one question
at a time.
8. Remember that
although you may have a definite line of inquiry the questions should be
conservational in tone rather than an interrogation!
9. Refer to your
question sheet as you go but reframe your questions and adjust the questions as
you go. Avoid
asking a question on the list when it has already been answered without being
asked, for example.
10. Clarify chronology
especially if it seems a bit murky – also shows you are paying attention.
11. Keep note pad
close at hand-
jot down names, places that you will need to check spelling of later; make a
quick note of Q you want to come back to or anything that that occurs to you
that you want to ask at an opportune moment later.
12. Be judicious in deciding when the interviewee
is rambling or going off topic,
sometimes you need to be patient. The interviewee may bring themselves
back. They may, along the way, raise
another whole issue for investigation as they talk. Too abrupt an attempt to
bring them back to topic may also diminish rapport.
13. Try to find a
natural break in the conversation before asking the next question.
14. Make sure you have
clear explanations of technical processes – ask someone to repeat if
15. Stay present and
relaxed. Pay close attention to what is being said; this will produce the best and
most relevant questions.
16. Use photos and
documents including news clippings as possible as prompts. Be sure to identify
everything verbally on tape.
i.e. “clipping from the Edmonton
Journal 25 April,
1965 or “Photo number A taken of your mother in January 1945.” Slip this info
as an interjection as smoothly as you can. If there is a lot of this material
you might explain before the interview begins that you will be doing “this so
anyone listen later will know what we are discussing.”
17. Pause the tape
when asked to do
so. But try to avoid off
tape discussions in the middle of an interview it is distracting breaks the
focus and flow and can be hard to restart the tape easily and can lead to
18. Avoid asking
questions that make a statement/judgement or conclusion about what the
interviewee has said.
19. Avoid comments on
what is being said.
Let the interview express feelings; whatever discomfort /urge to share you
experience keep it to yourself! Avoid supplying the interviewee with what you
think his or her feelings must have been.
20. Use body language
to express surprise, agreement,
understanding. Nod, smile, raise an eyebrow, do a silent laugh. The less that
is heard from the interviewer on tape the most useful the interview is for
21. If someone becomes
pause the tape and give them time to regroup before continuing... reset the
conversation … “we were talking about…..”
Or conversely, set a new topic, “I’d like to move on and ask you about
22. Try to keep more
sensitive questions towards the end of the interview when trust and rapport has
23. Be prepared to change subject and clarify
necessary – (see tip sheet on this).
24. Keep an eye on the
time – if
using cassette tapes be aware of 45 minute length of tape. Try to find a
natural break in conversation to turn the tape over. Err on the side of too son rather
than too late to avoid a sentence being cut off in mid stream. It is better to
turn it over your self than have the recorder do it automatically.
25. One and half hours
is generally enough. Make it clear that the interview is about to end. Before we finish up for
today I have a couple of last questions….
26. Make sure to thank
the interviewee on tape.
27. Ask the
interviewee to sign the release form which you mentioned before the interview began.
28. Return to your
note pad for any questions/ spellings that are outstanding.
29. Have tea and let
the interviewee know you will be in contact if you have questions or to review
the transcript if that is what you are planning to do.
After the interview….Follow up and
1. Make sure you take steps
to preserve your interview. For cassette
tapes, push out tab on the corners. For digital, download into your computer
immediately. In both cases make a copy and use this for working with, playing
back, editing as relevant, and keep the master copy as the archival copy.
2. Label the cassette/file –
name of interviewer, interviewee, date, indicate 1/1 or of 1/2 tapes/files, and
give it a number of some sequential sort. Museums use accession numbers that
include the year. Eg. 2010 1.1 . The first tape in the first interview of 2010.
Therefore 2010 4:2 – would be the second tape of the fourth interview.
3. Undertake some sort of
guide to the interview for quick reference. This might be a subject reference,
summary or transcript. Transcripts are very time consuming about 10 hours per
one hour recording but give you a verbatim coverage of the tape. An index is
exactly that names of places, people subject topics. A detailed summary gives
you a little more -some idea of the flow of the conversation. See separate sheet
for an example.
4. If you borrowed photos
make copies and return them to the interviewee. If you are working in a museum
or representing a public organization or group, you need to use a loan form to
note you borrowed and returned the item.
5. Keep a paper file on your
interview labelling with its (Accession) number. You should keep the release
form in here, along with a bio or interviewee, some info on the interviewer,
any relevant notes on the interview that might remind you or help anyone later
to understand the dynamics of the interview. All pieces of paper should have
the interview number on them.
6. Keep your tapes
safe/files safe. See
sheet on care and handling.
This series will now conclude with Part 4's bibliography.