There are many reasons to interview a partner, relative, or friend. You may want to strengthen your relationship, get to know them on a deeper level, or record their life history and family stories before it's too late. Personal interviews are a powerful way to learn something new and carry the past forward for future generations.
This is the second installment in our three-part guide to help you prepare for and conduct an effective and meaningful family history interview with a loved one. Part one of this series focused on preparation, part two covers tips on the interview itself, and part three offers advice for conducting an interview remotely using a video conference tool like Zoom.
The best interviewers create comfortable environments that foster meaningful conversation and honest sharing from their storyteller. Here are six tips to help you do the same:
Start by thanking your storyteller for their participation and reminding them of why their involvement is important to you. If others have weighed in on the process, cite their gratefulness and excitement too. Reassure your storyteller that they are worthy of interest and that their stories matter to you and others.
Its easy to believe that our personal experiences are insignificant or lack any historical value worthy of capturing, but that is simply not true. Not only is there value in every life, but there is always something to learn from, to be inspired by, and worthy of sharing.
Let your storyteller know what to expect and that its okay to take breaks, use the restroom, or get a drink – whatever they need. It can be helpful to communicate a thematic outline of your questions and what period of their life you plan to cover (e.g. “I’d like to start by asking you about your grandparents, then your parents, and then learn about your childhood.”)
Be sure to highlight that the session is not intended to be comprehensive, but instead the first of potentially a series of conversations. You may even want to set a time limit of 60-90 minutes so they know how long it will take.
Clear, specific, short questions work best. Think of your interview structure as an inverted pyramid. Approach a new topic with an open-ended question that allows the storyteller to describe their experience at length (e.g. “Tell me about…” or “Can you describe…”), then go deeper with follow-up questions that probe for more detail.
Remember that you’re after narratives that illuminate a lived experience, not facts or opinions. Collecting specific details may be important for context (e.g. the whos, wheres, and whens), but the best questions are those that facilitate reflection (e.g. the whys, hows, and whats).
Feel free to redirect a conversation, but only after a train of thought has finished. Interruptions disrupt the narrative flow, break concentration, and detract from the purity of the recording. Remember, this interview isn't about you (at least not this one). For long-winded storytellers, consider using body language or clear expectations at the opening to keep the conversation moving.
Sometimes the best follow-up question is actually no question at all. A five-second pause as you finish a note often leads to additional, more personal reflections.
Reserve your voice to guide your storyteller as needed, letting their stories and recollections unfold. Often one thing will lead to another naturally. You may be surprised by what you discover!
90 minutes is usually the right amount of time for an interview, after which both you and the storyteller may tire. If you don’t get to all the topics you wanted to cover, schedule another conversation or consider making this a regular part of your interactions together. Your first interview could be the foundation for an incredible journey of discovery or even a new family tradition!
Can't be in person? Check out these tips for conducting a family interview over Zoom.