Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Unlocking the Past: Techniques for Conducting Meaningful Interviews

These are my notes from the panel presentation, “Unlocking the Past: Techniques for Conducting Meaningful Interviews” at the “Oral History for the 21st Century” Symposium in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This conference is sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma Historical Records Advisory Board, Oklahoma Humanities Council, Oklahoma Museums Association, and Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. It is funded, in part, by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. MY THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS.

A link shared by one of our panelists today – COHE: Committee for Oral History Education

Comments from Larry O’Dell, Director of Collections, Oklahoma History Center Research Department

Every year we have a year-long exhibit, and we spend 2 years getting ready for that
– for any exhibit, we want to include an oral history element
– last year or exhibit was on Rock and Roll
– we use a crew and professional equipment to conduct interviews

I want to know as much about the subject as I can
– prior to interview: I have key points we want people to address and cover
– sometimes I ask one question and the person just “goes”

Most important thing: listening and letting people taking the time they need to say what they need to say
– trying not to interrupt

I am not there to show them what I know, I’m there to listen to them
– it’s not the interviewer, it’s about the interviewee

Comments from Mary Larson, Oklahoma Oral History Research Program, Oklahoma State University

You want to listen to what people are telling you
– even if you have a question list or outline
– listen to what people are telling you and respond to their answers to your questions

always write down questions with paper and pencil
– at a pause, ask your question
– don’t interrupt to get a point of detail, that will cause people to lose their focus 60-70% of the time

give people room to navigate
I worked at the Univ of Alaska Fairbanks
– worked a lot with native people and native organizational leaders, including elders
– sometimes when I asked a question an elder would start to answer and I’d think they were saying unrelated things, but they were not: They were giving me background to what they wanted to say and the point they wanted to make

Sometimes it does happen that an interview goes off the rails
– complete loss of control for the interview process
– if this happens, you can reel in the interviewee with a statement. Repeat a fact that they’ve addressed, and ask them for more detail or elaboration about that event/episode.

Journalists in general tend to be more aggressive and up front
– generally we are not trying to be that controversial
– because you’re looking for a particular person’s perspetive, you don’t want to argue with them or contradict them
– don’t mention the other people’s names if you bring up a contrary perspective
– say something like: “Well, someone else told me that Rocky the squirrel was responsible for bombing the popcorn plant.”
– bring it up in a non-controversial way: don’t argue, just ask for why they think something is different

If you are doing family histories, working in a small community, try to keep people from speaking in shorthand
– people have nicknames, people may not know who your “Uncle Stinky” was
– have people give you real names
– lots of acronyms in the federal government
– be sure if someone uses an acronym and you don’t know what it stands for, ask them
– there is no shame in action
– you can always say, “For the people who may be listening to this later, can you give some more background on….”

Always be respectful of the people you are working with, they are giving you a great gift by spending time talking with you
– do your background research, that is a sign of respect
– always be prepared

Comments from

It all boils down to repoire
– basic human skills of sitting down with another human being and drawing them out
– actual sitting down and doing the interview hasn’t changed since the first interviews were done
– bells and whistles / technology hasn’t changed this
– listening well, eye contact, nodding, smiling, pays off

I’ve done interviews with people across the spectrum
– no one has ever asked me where I am coming from on an issue
– you are spending time with them, getting to know them
– for elderly people, remembering names they know and events they lived in creates a bond, sometimes it creates a friendship
– the more comfortable the interviewee is with me, the more candid they are
– example of someone on the 3rd interview saying: “I’ve been giving it to you sugar coated, now I’m going to tell it to you how it was.”

Value of reflection and time, multiple interviews
– 2nd and 3rd interview, often draws out richer veins of information from individuals
– different ways to do this
– some people open up immediately
– others are shy, may feel they are betraying something by talking to you
– let them know they can impose legal restrictions on the interview and how it’s shared, can review the transcript

Question for the panel: What if the interviewee forgets something and gets stuck

– Photographs can be helpful
— think of peoples memories as a treasure chest, there are different ways to pick the lock
— different things can jog their memories
— I like interviewing people in their homes because often they have mnemonic devices all around them: memory cues on walls and tables

older people think of oral history interviews with names and dates, and thinks if they don’t remember those they will flunk
– if you prep those dates and talk about them first, that can help get those out of the way

Question: Better to interview at someone’s house or a neutral location
– be sure to control the sound environment as best you can
– ask people to turn OFF cell phones, not just silence them: with digital recorders now we have these interference issues that we never had with analog recorders

Equipment recommendations:
– built in recorder in Marantz recorder really works great (with analog recorders, built-in mics often picked up machine noise, that is not true now
– change batteries in recorders often to make sure nothing is lost
– Larry’s audio crew uses two mics: both a lavalier and a boom mic

Legal release forms generally give you rights to reuses your interviews in public presentations
– follow the golden rule
– many people love the public attention
– many in the Senate have wanted things to go up immediately, we don’t put things in our historical archive online that focus on people who are alive

cover your ethical and legal bases
– generally give people a chance to review and be involved in the possible uses for their oral histories
– have a very honest conversation with people about this

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3 responses to “Unlocking the Past: Techniques for Conducting Meaningful Interviews”

  1. Terry Freedman Avatar

    I like this post: lots of good ideas. However, I would add the following:

    I think even more emphasis should be placed on listening. It’s good to ahve a structure or a list of questions, but one of the problems with revealing that too early is that you skew the talk.

    For example, last year I was interviewing Principals about what they would like to use new technical equipment for, as I had been asked to write a bid for a large sum of money. However, I didn’t ask that question. I asked them to tell me what they would like their school to ‘look’ like in terms of teaching and learning. And then I let them talk. And talk. And talk. And while they were talking, I quietly ticked off all the nicely typed list of questions I had, so at the end all I had to do was a bit of a mopping up exercise. OK, the answers didn’t come in the order I’d have liked, but I got their passion as well as the information I wanted, so who’s complaining?

    There’s a good video about the art of the interview here:

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Excellent, thanks Terry. I agree listening is a key part of the oral history and digital storytelling process. Did you post any of your interviews with principals as podcasts or videos?

  3. Terry Freedman Avatar

    Thanks, Wesley. No, because I was using the recorder purely as a back-up in case I needed to check my notes afterwards. So I had a different purpose than that. What I did with all the answers, in fact, was to amalgamte them all into a document with which all of them agreed, and that formed the basis of the (successful) bid.

    However, what the experience taught me was the value of saying as little as possible as an interviewer, which is why I think it’s relevant in the context of family history and so on. It’s harder to work with the material afterwards, but what you end up with is much richer than if you had had just a standard Q and A session.

    (Actually I will be talking about that project with Peggy George at on Saturday 21st, in case anyone reading this is interested.)

    Cheers 🙂