10 interview techniques to set you up for success

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 
  • 10 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 

We last spoke about The 6 Steps to Prepping for a Legacy Interview so be sure read that post before going any further!

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

10 Interview Techniques to Set You Up for Success

01 | It’s not about you…

… it’s ALL about your subject,  you are just the guide! Everything you craft  should be with your interviewee in mind. Questions should be written with their story in mind and they should do most of the talking. 

02 | Jump around!

While you’ve crafted a blueprint in chronological order, you must remember that memory sometimes doesn’t always stick to an exact timeline. Your subject may jump around and that is OKAY. Jumping around allows the subject to connect stories in their mind, so don’t discourage it. 

However, it the interviewee gets very “off topic” gently guide them back on track using your blueprint.

03 | Be “in” the conversation 

Be present and listen. Lean into the conversation. As you lean in, if questions come to you that will enhance the subjects story and narration ask the question even if it’s not written on your blueprint or something you thought of ahead of time.

04 | Don’t interrupt 

We want the interview to be a narrative, not a series of Q & A. So once the subject begins talking resist the urge to interrupt. Allow the subject to finish their complete train of thought before asking follow up questions or sharing thoughts. 

05 | This is all an experience

As you conduct you interview remember that you are trying to capture the subject’s “experience”. We are not writing a factual scientific textbook, but rather someone’s story which is shaped by their experiences. Keep this in mind and allow the subject’s experiences to shine through.

06 | Get the facts straight before-hand 

If you do your homework before the interview you can already have dates, events, and the facts written down ahead of time. Having this knowledge will allow you to prompt  the subject with details allowing them to dig into their stories deeper and not spend time focusing on dates, etc. We want to hear about someone’s experiences, how they reflect on their life in greater detail. Focus on the who, where, and when in your homework. Focus on the why, how, and what in your interview.

07 | Ask open ended questions

Yes or No answers are not going to give you much detail about a person’s life and their experiences. As you craft your  interview questions, write out open ended questions that will allow you to collect detail about the person’s experience.

08 | Emotionally Prepare

Let’s be honest…family’s are not conflict-free zones. Family stories are full of hardship, despair, loss, change, and everything in between. Families are complex, thus the stories you may hear will be complex too. Emotionally prepare for having an open and honest conversation with the interviewee. The subject should feel comfortable reflecting on their life and relationships thoughtfully and honestly without feeling the need to filter or tip-toe around feelings. 

09 | Challenge the interviewee…just a little bit 

While we want to respect the interviewee, it is important to challenge them a bit when appropriate. For example, if you know there is more to a story than they are sharing or if they are completely glossing over the hardships in a story find ways to ask them more about what they’re skipping over in a way that feels welcoming. We’ll go through how to handle emotionally tough interviews more later!

10 | Save 2 hours for each legacy interview

Two hours is about the maximum amount of time that both the interviewer and subject can stay engaged and involved in a conversation before getting too tired. Block off 2 hour windows for each interview you host. I recommend only doing one interview every few days at most to give yourself the emotional time to process. 

Note: One 2-hour session is not going to be enough time to do an entire account of their life  and family history. I would save 4-5 legacy interview sessions for each interviewee to get a full view of their story.

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.