Thursday, February 7, 2013

12 tips for a better oral history or folklore interview

Nervous about your first oral history or folklore interview? It's OK, I'm here to help! Here are some tips and tricks to get you ready. And if you want, you can download this as a one-page PDF for handy reference.

1. If you haven't done any oral history interviewing before, think first about a focus or theme for your project.  Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this interview? What information do I want to get?”

2. Think about the type of interview you wish to do.  Life History Interviews focus on the life history of a person and the changes they may have experienced;  Topic Interviews collect information about a specific subject, workplace, skill or occupation.

3. Do an informal “pre-interview.”  Be clear with your “informant” - the person you are interviewing - that the interview is being recorded, and what it will be used for. Have a discussion in advance about the type of information of interest to you.

4. In general, have a list of topics in mind you want to cover in the interview, rather than a set list of questions. You might have some written starting questions to begin with, but then shift to your topic list and be flexible.

5. Start off with some easy questions, such as short biographical questions about name, date of birth, parents and the like. This gives you good identifying information at the start of the interview, and helps relax your informant. You can ask more detailed or personal questions after you both settle into the conversation.

6. Ask questions one at a time. If your question has two or three parts, ask them separately.

7. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Questions that start with “how” or “why” get you more interesting answers.

8. Use plain, straightforward words and avoid leading questions. Rather than asking “I suppose life as a fisherman was hard?”, ask “Can you describe what life was like for a fisherman?”

9. Ask follow-up questions. Then ask some more! If something is unclear, ask for clarification.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to which you think you already know the answers. You might get suprising answers!

11. Be a good listener, and refrain from talking too much yourself. Use body language, nodding, and smiling to encourage your informant. Let them know, visually, that you are interested.

12. Don't let periods of silence fluster you. Just wait and don’t rush the interview. Sometimes people need a moment to complete their thoughts. If you are silent, chances are your informant will fill the gap by saying something more about the question you asked last.

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