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Oral History Guide: Tips

Guidelines for creating oral histories and oral history projects.

Image of the word Tips

 

"Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do."
 - Willa Baum's Oral History for the Local Historical Society (1971)

 

 

 

Image by Rachael Voorhees

Basic Tips

10 Tips for Interviewers

1. Choose a quiet locale and properly position your microphones and/or video cameras. 

2. Ask one question at a time. State your questions as directly as possible.

3. Ask open-ended questions—questions that begin with “why, how, where, what kind of,” etc.

4. Start with non-controversial questions. One good place to begin, for instance, is with the narrator’s childhood, or where they grew up and have them describe it.

5. Understand that periods of silence will occur. These are useful periods of reflection and recollection for your narrator.

6. Avoid interrupting the narrator.

7. If the narrator strays away from the topic in which you are interested, don’t panic. Sometimes the best parts of the interview come about this way. If you feel the digression has gone too far afield, gently steer the narrator back to the topic with your next question.

8. Be respectful of the narrator. Use body language to show you are interested in what he or she has to say. Remember, the narrator is giving you the gift of his or her memories and experiences.

9. After the interview, thank the narrator for sharing his or her experiences. Also send a written thank-you note.

10. Don’t use the interview to show off your knowledge, charm, or other attributes.

-from A Practical Guide to Oral History

Oral History Organizations

Oral History Guides

Image of two people with conversation bubblesPracticing your questions beforehand will help to produce a clear and polished interview.