HOW TO INTERVIEW OTHERS TO CAPTURE THEIR LIFE STORIES
Have you been wanting to capture the life stories of someone you love or to ask others to contribute their memories to your life stories?
Interviewing is a good way to capture the details of memories from someone else. Here are some ideas on how to prepare to interview others and how to ask questions in a way that will bring out the best stories.
PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW
Before jumping in to ask someone to share their life stories, it is a good idea to prepare for the interview beforehand.
Here are a few tips to help you with this preparation:
Prepare Yourself. Ask yourself what your goals are in talking with this particular person. You are not here to fight or pick at old battles. You are here to listen. Similarly, you are not here to confirm what you already know (or think you know). Let them talk, perhaps you will get details you never knew before, perspectives you never heard before.
Prepare Your Interviewee. Instead of just sitting down and start asking questions, tell them exactly what you are doing. This will help create context for them and put them at ease for the interview. You should share with them why you have chosen to speak with them. Speak from your heart and be sincere. Depending on your relationship, be clear you are not here to judge, but to learn. Convey that you respect and are interested in their experience, that you value what they might share, and their life’s perspective. People may feel they will bore you with details you do not care about so take the time to address this head on. Say, “I want to know, I want all the details.” Part of your role will be to steer them away from getting bogged down in rehashing old hurts (such as how great-aunt Hettie got the china that was clearly meant for me) and stay on the path of life experience and history.
Prepare Your Logistics.
Time of day: Ask your interviewee their routine beforehand. There may be times of the day they are more alert or free from their various activities and your interview will be more successful if you are able to work with their schedule.
Location: Choose a quiet place where there are minimal distractions and, if you are recording the interview, that offers better sound quality.
Equipment: Charge your phone or recording device beforehand. Bring a paper and pen so you can note follow up questions without interrupting their flow.
Silence your phone during the interview: You would hate to have a deep heart-felt story interrupted with the ping of a text or call.
Placement of recording device: Place the recording device somewhere it can easily pick up sound and the mic is unobstructed. Then, forget about it. Let your interviewee forget about it. People get stiff and formal in performance mode if you keep reminding them they are being recorded. You want them to be natural in order to capture their real personality. Not to mention to capture the real stories!
Prepare Your Questions. Have some questions prepared beforehand and some sense of where you want to go with the interview. If your interviewee is 70 or 80 years young, that is a lot of history to cover, and you could both get overwhelmed. It is good to have some sort of direction in mind, for both your sakes. That said, be flexible because sometimes the best stories come while another is being told. We will offer some suggested interview questions at the end of this guide.
HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS THAT BRING OUT THE BEST STORIES
How you ask a question is as important as what questions to ask. It can make a difference in how the story is framed or told.
Here are a few tips on how to ask questions to bring out the best stories:
Frame questions to be open-ended. Begin questions with “Why”, “How”, “Can you describe…”, “Tell me about...”. You are looking for more than a yes or no answer.
Less is more. The less specific you are in your questions, the more room you allow for the interviewee to expand on their answer. For example, “Tell me about your childhood” is more flexible than “Did you have a happy childhood?”. The former opens up storytelling and exploration, the latter shuts it down.
Do not answer your own question. Sometimes we get eager to hear a re-telling of a family story everyone knows. Avoid asking something like, “Tell me about the time you told my sister and I to get out of the tree or the bees will sting us and they sure did.” There is nothing left to tell! Keep it open-ended because you may hear things you did not know before.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
The History Project empowers families to connect artifacts and memories across media to build experiential stories that transcend generations. The History Project offers a set of mobile and online tools to intelligently collect, beautifully curate and delightfully collaborate in building your personal life story. Preserve and relive the memories that matter most through The History Project. For more details visit www.thehistoryproject.com.