As interviewers or facilitators, our primary responsibility is to do no harm. Our second responsibility is to shut our mouths and listen. Invite the person to tell his or her story and then stay out of the way.
Your role is to facilitate someone telling her (or his) story, the story that the person wants (and sometimes needs) to tell.
The best oral histories, for our purposes, are the one in which the interviewer becomes almost invisible and inaudible. The best oral history interviewers are the ones in which the interviewer says as little as possible.
Let the person you are interviewing lead the interview and determine its course. Ask only those questions that are necessary to get the person going. Ask clarifying questions only when absolutely necessary.
If you have questions you know you want answered, wait. The person may very well bring up these topics on her or his own. You will frequently find that you do not have to ask the question to get the answer. You will frequently find that you will learn far more if you wait to see what the person wants to tell you, than if you decide ahead of time what you need to know.
DO encourage people to show you photographs, memorabilia, objects, newspaper articles, cards, artwork. People often find it easier to talk when they have some material object in front of them, to tell stories through objects, than only from words.
The interview is not about the interviewers. So even as we notice our mistakes, try to learn from them, and avoid them next time, don’t obsess about them.
Remember your role: to facilitate the story-telling in a short-term relationship. You’re not becoming the person’s best friend, therapist, or spiritual advisor. Don’t create expectations that you will not be able to fulfill.
At the interview site, but before you begin recording
1. Review the consent process first, before you begin recording. Remind the narrator that she is in charge of the interview, may pause or stop at any time.
2. Agree with the narrator on the amount of time you both plan to spend today. Ask her or him if she has a time limit. Remind the person that under no circumstances will you spend more than three hours; if there is more to say, you will continue the interview another day.
3. Ask the narrator if she or he has any questions. Listen carefully. Make sure you answer the questions; even more, try to identify and understand the questions and concerns underneath the stated questions. Is there something that the narrator is afraid will happen? Take as much time as you need. Don’t hurry this process. You are not a journalist and you do not have a deadline.
A clear line between not-interview and interview
Ask the person if she or he has any questions and answer them. Make sure the person audibly and clearly consents to the interview on the videotape or audiotape.
There must be a clear beginning to the interview, e.g., “Okay, are you ready? …. Let’s begin. Today is the 31st day of February, 2086. We are here in [city] at the [describe location but not street address unless it’s a public space] to interview [name the narrator]. The person speaking is [Nancy NonInterrupting Narrator or Quincy Quiet] and the videographer is [Vinnie Videographer]. Ms. Narrator, we’ve talked about the purpose of this interview, and its possible risks and benefits. Do you have any questions at all? …. Do you consent to this interview?…. I’m going to ask you to please sign these consent forms on camera…”
Here’s your checklist:
Identify the date
Where you are (decide with narrator how specific to be)
The people in the room and their roles
Your purpose for being there
Ask the person if she understands the reason for the interview and what will happen with it. Remind the person that the interview is confidential but not privileged. Ask if she has any questions. When you’ve answered any questions, ask her if she will consent to the interview.
If there is a consent form, make sure that you and the narrator sign it in the correct spaces. Forms are not “just paperwork” — far from it!
During the interview
1. Be aware of personal space. Respect your narrator’s personal space. Make yourself comfortable, too. If you need to pull back from someone who is “in your face,” do so. Be aware that people have different expectations about what is too close and what is far away, what is too loud, and what is too soft. Pay attention to what your narrator seems to need.
2. Start out with an area that seems relatively unthreatening and unintrusive. Obviously, what’s no big deal to one person may seem very intrusive to another, so pay attention to cues, back off when you need to. You might try openings such as… Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? If the person takes off from there, great. If not, you can get a little more specific. Perhaps you could tell me about where you grew up… or, for someone whose experience is tied to her profession Would you tell us how you became a police officer?
3. Be quiet. Listen.
4. With your facial gestures, eye contact, posture (lean slightly forward), and other body language and movements, show the person that you are engaged with her or his story and eager to hear more. Express interest and empathy in quiet ways…
Tilt your head
Open your eyes
Furrow your eyebrows (not in worry, but in interest)
But do not express your interest in audible ways….
Yes I see
These may be supportive expressions, but they fill up the recording with you. You want to be heard as little as possible
And of course do not gasp or exclaim: Wow! or Oh, no! or !No me digas!
5. Pay close attention.
Make notes, if this is helpful to you, about areas that the narrator or you may discuss further. “Tangents” are good! — but the narrator may want to finish one thought before getting to another, so you can help keep track of these threads.
6. Close your mouth.
7. Put your assumptions and agenda to the side. You don’t have to give them up or stop being who you are; you can pick up these parts of yourselves again on the way home from the interview
8. Understand that silence is good. Silence is part of the story. Silence is productive. Let it be.
9. When the narrator pauses, wait. If she or he seems to be “through” with what they are saying, and when you are sure you are not rushing the person, encourage her or him to continue with open-ended prompts. Invite story-telling with:
Would you like to say a little more…
I’d like to hear about that…
Please tell me.
Could you tell me about that….
Would you say more….
Could you describe…..
Would you describe…
What do you remember about that day….
Does anything stick in your mind from that day?
If you find yourself in an interview where a person is responding with “yes” or “no” or other short answers, this situation may be a sign that you need to change what you are doing. But it may not. Some people don’t talk a lot. Some people are going to be nervous or defensive. The more relaxed (while being respectful) you are, the more likely other people may be to open up — but if not, don’t worry. Your job is not to force people to become other than who they are.
10. Be direct when you ask about the hardest topics. Don’t hem and haw. If you can’t get the words out, you may come across as judgmental or frightened or fragile. You may undermine the narrator’s comfort in talking to you. Just get to it.
Your brother was arrested. Can you tell me about that.
I understand you have witnessed executions. . . .
I’d like to know about your daughter.
Would you tell me about losing her.
11. Follow up with clarifying questions only when the person has come to her or his own stopping place or pause.
12. Wait until the end of the interview to ask any burning questions that you feel you must ask for some reason.
13. Be patient.
14. Do allow yourself to feel empathy and sorrow. Do not, however, let your emotions take center stage. You do not want to become another burden, someone who must be taken care of. If you feel tears well up, that is one thing. If you feel that you must sob, stifle yourself. Stay focused on your job. Release your own emotions as fully as you need to — later.
15. Understand that silence is often productive. Do practice silence and becoming comfortable with silence. It is okay to sit in silence. Don’t try to fill in up.
16. At the end of an interview, ask a person if there is anything else that they would like to add.
Ask the person what they wish other people would know or understand. What do they hope other people learn from their experiences?
Ask the person what they hope might happen from telling her or his story.
17. If a narrator begins to go into material that involves a potential or pending criminal case or lawsuit and that is not public information, politely but firmly stop the person, turn off the camera and all other recording mechanisms. Remind the person that the interview and your communications are confidential but not privileged, and that if they share otherwise privileged information with you and the camera, they lose the privilege. Explain what that means and the potential repercussions, however remote. (This hypothetical scenario should discourage you from talking, outside the office, about who you are planning to interview or have interviewed!)
18. Always thank the narrator for her or his time.
19. Before you leave the room, make sure you know how to reach the narrator. Write down her or his “permanent” address, if different from where you are meeting; phone numbers where available; e-mails where available, and also ask for the name of another person you may contact in case you have difficulty reaching the person.
Do not leave without having multiple ways to reach the person, two weeks, a month, six months, and a year or more from the date of the interview.