10 Tips for Digging Up Great Family Stories
The best interview should be a conversation or storytelling session, rather than a Q&A. This can be especially difficult when the interview makes your storyteller uncomfortable, such as when it is being recorded. The next time you’re conducting an oral history interview, try these tips for making the conversation flow.
1. Stay Engaged
People are generally much happier to share their stories when they feel that you are truly interested in what they have to say. Maintain eye contact and really listen as they speak. Show interest by leaning forward, nodding, using appropriate facial expressions, or occasionally asking relevant follow-up questions.
2. Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. The whole point of an interview is to allow your family member to tell her story. When she pauses she may just be thinking or remembering; it can take time to call up memories of events she hasn’t thought of in years. Instead of jumping right in with the next question each time there is a pause, give your interviewee a little time to see if she has anything else to add before moving on.
3. Ask the Right Questions
The best interview stories come from questions that ask when, why, how, where and what, instead of just requiring a “yes” or “no” response. Along with that, you may also want to ask how the event made your interviewee feel. Emotions are a big part of your family’s story and something you won’t generally learn from documents and records.
When you ask a series of questions at once, chances are that the interviewee will only answer the first or the last. Keep your questions brief, and present them one at a time.
4. Follow up on the Good Stuff
For any event or account brought up during the interview, follow up with additional questions to find out not only what the person did, but also what she thought and felt about what she did. You should also try to establish where your interviewee was and what they were doing at the time of the event. This helps you to learn how much of what they are telling you is first-hand knowledge, and how much is based on the stories of others.
5. Be Yourself
If you’re relaxed, then it’s more likely your interview subject will be relaxed as well. Don’t worry about fumbling a few questions or “doing it right.” This will only show that you’re human and help to put your subject at ease.
6. Don’t Interrupt
Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a new question or want to clarify a point. Instead, jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask them later. Even if your subject gets off track a little, let them finish their story before steering them back on topic.
7. Get Personal
Some of the best stories come from the personal questions – the ones that are slightly embarrassing, sensitive, or elicit laughter or tears. The thrill of first love, an embarrassing memory from school, the feelings you had as you were shipped off to war. These are the questions that can be hard to ask, but they are also the ones that will give you details you’ve probably never heard before. Keep these types of questions for after you’ve established a rapport with your interviewee, however.
8. Don’t Challenge
Don’t challenge stories or accounts that you think might be inaccurate. Your interviewee may just have a different perspective, and a challenge may put her on the defensive or even shut down the interview. Everyone wants to feel they are believed. If you know of or have heard another version of the story, you may want to tactfully mention this and give your relative the opportunity to respond.
9. Bring Props
It’s amazing how many memories and stories an old photograph can elicit, so just imagine the stories an entire album or home movie may bring to mind. Look for anything that might help job your interviewee’s memory of places, events and people. If you don’t have any such props of your own, then ask your interviewee if she has any family photos or heirlooms to show you. For photos, ask when and where the photo was taken, the reason or event, and who the people in the photograph are. For family heirlooms ask questions such as: How was it used? Who made or purchased it? Who gave it to them? Also, ask if there are any stories or special memories associated with the object or photo.
10. Try a Group Approach
Some of the best stories come when a group of relative, old friends, or military buddies get together and start reminiscing, so use this to your advantage. Set up a video camera in the corner of the dining room at Thanksgiving or set up a group of chairs at the family reunion. Then ask a question or two to get the stories started and let it build from there.
Any family interview should be considered an ongoing conversation, rather than a one-time gig. This doesn’t mean you need to schedule a formal interview once a year, but you should try to use every opportunity to ask questions and gather new stories. You’ll likely learn something new every time you ask. I still do, and I’ve been asking questions of my family members for over 20 years!