the 6 steps to prepping for a legacy interview

August 13, 2020

Deeply connecting with family through oral storytelling is one of the most beautiful ways to preserve your family’s legacy. As humans we are natural storytellers and learn so much about our past, ourselves, and our future through sharing our life experiences with each other. 

As humans we are natural storytellers and learn so much about our past, ourselves, and our future through sharing our life experiences with each other. 

Oral storytelling/history is not only a way to deeply connect to others, they are an important part of the legacy preservation process because they are a primary source (a first person account) of material which is priceless.

Needless to say, the Legacy Interview process is an important and essential part of Legacies Untold.

Legacy Interviews should be done thoroughly and with care. Over the next few weeks we’ll work our way through the Legacy Interview process covering the critical pieces to conducting a successful interview including: 

  • The 6 Steps to Prepping for a Legacy Interview 
  • Interview Techniques to Set You Up for Success
  • Needed Equipment 
  • Interview Part 1: Early Childhood + Family Background
  • Interview Part 2: Teenage Years
  • Interview Part 3: Adulthood
  • Interview Part 4: Overview and Philosophies 
  • Family History Resources 

Now before we get started…

…remember that the legacy interview process can be emotional, overwhelming, and something that should be handled with care. Don’t forget, this isn’t just a random project, but you’re collecting information about people’s lives, stories, and experiences, thus you need to be ethical about how you collect the information. At the end of the day the story you collect is legally and ethically the interviewee’s story, so today we’re focusing solely on how to set up your interview for success.

* I use the term “subject” and “interviewee” interchangeably throughout this post.

The 6 Steps to Prepping for a Legacy Interview 

01 | Do your homework…

… on your subject 

As anything in life goes – the more you do your homework, the better you will understand your subject. The same principle applies to legacy interviews. The more you understand your subject, their history, their experiences, and their background the better the interview will go. 

…and the standards of the profession

Also research what the standards are for collecting oral history information properly. Visit the Oral History Association for the proper standards to follow paying particular attention to ethical guidelines, which will be briefly discussed here.

02 | Craft a blueprint

Make an outline to guide your interview ahead of time  to use as a blueprint for your conversation. This outline should be filled with “high-level” picture heading topics that will allow you to rearrange ideas and write out the best order to ask your subject questions in so stories can naturally unfold and you can conduct a deeper more meaningful interview. 

Once you have your “big picture” header topics written out, write down all the questions you can possibly think of underneath. The intention is not to use ALL the questions you can think of and write down, but to give you a clear idea of how you will structure your conversation. 

I find it most useful to outline topics by chronology of events related to topics that the subject experienced. Note that every subjects life experiences are different, thus the blueprint you create for each legacy interview you conduct will be different.

03  | Share (a sneak peak of) your outline

Share (just a bit of) your outline with your interviewee ahead of time so they can look through it and appropriately prepare. Interviews can be especially emotional, so allowing the subject to  read over the questions ahead of time allows them time to emotionally prepare for how they want to answer questions and topics they are or are not comfortable talking about. 

It is important to not share the WHOLE interview outline with your subject because you don’t want your interview to be too rigid and turn into a stale Q & A session. The best interviews are those that feel prepared enough to know what to expect, but flow like a comfortable conversation and are filled with lots of story and heart.

04 | Create a policy before the interview 

First and foremost – you must make a policy/contract with the person you are  interviewing to ensure you have their cooperation and that they fully understand what you intend to do with the  interview materials. You want to be transparent and share what you plan to do with the interview afterwards.

Who will have access to the interview?

Where will it be stored?

Will the recording be shared with the entire family and anyone who wants access to it? Or will selective writings be shared? 

Will the interviewee get to review the content and decide what is shared and what isn’t? 

What will you do with material that is sensitive (i.e. painful, humiliating, or hurtful to others)? 

It’s important to be on the same page prior to starting interview and to get your legacy interview contract in writing. Note that if any of the interview content will be publicly shared you must have a signed agreement. 

05 | Create a safe environment 

Since the Legacy Interview process is sensitive ensure you create a safe and welcoming environment for the interview. If the interview is done in person, arrange a quiet private space where you can conduct the interview uninterrupted. If the interview is done virtually or over the phone,  request that the subject reserve a quiet private space where  they can be  interviewed undisturbed. 

I recommend reserving a 2-hour window for your Legacy Interview to give enough time for the subject to get comfortable and for their story to unfold. Be sure the time you select is continent for your subject and is during a time where  they are most cognitively comfortable and ready to be interviewed.

06 | Resources to take you deeper 

And as always I want to leave you with the best resources so you can dig even deeper into today’s topic at your leisure: 

Oral History Association 

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History

Oral History Association Pamphlet Series 

UC Berkeley Oral History Center 

In our next journal post we’ll discuss Interview Techniques to Set You Up for Success.