Category Archives: Interviewing

Do You Make These 5 Common Audio Mistakes?

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve just completed videotaping an hour-long interview. It was  nicely lit and framed. And the interview itself was fantastic! Excitedly you rush back to your editing suite,  put up your interview to screen, and then the shock. The picture looks great but the audio is terrible. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. The interview is ruined!

I know that getting flawless sound all the time is nearly impossible. But you can improve the odds if you avoid making these 5 common audio mistakes.

1. Using the wrong microphone

All microphones are not created equal. The worse choice is using the microphone that comes with your video or audio recorder. These are passable for family events but not for a professional interview.  Built-in mics  pick-up the electronic clicks and whirs of the equipment and are sensitive to any hand contact.

Don’t use wireless mics for interviews unless you plan to spend the big bucks. Inexpensive wireless mics can pick up frequency interference from a host of sources such as cell phones, TV stations, CD players, computers, and PDAs.

Your best bet for interviews is to use a lapel mic or shotgun mic mounted on a stand. This will ensure better sound quality because the mic can be placed close to the subject.

2. not eliminating Background noise

Nothing spoils an interview more than background noise. You need to have the ears of a bat to eliminate unwanted sounds..

Make certain to turn off or unplug everything that you’ve control over. This includes heating and cooling systems,  refrigerators and freezers, radios and music players,  cell and land line telephone, and ticking clocks. Also make sure to close outside windows and the door to the interview room.

Before starting the interview put on your headphones and listen carefully for any stray background noise. If you’ve done your job thoroughly, all you should hear is the faint breathing of your subject.

3. Not using headphones

If you’re not wearing headphones, you can’t adequately monitor the quality of the audio you’re recording. Over-the ear headphones are the best. Spend some money and invest in a good pair. Failing that, anything is better than nothing. Even the earbuds from your iPod will do in a pinch.

4. recording with Automatic gain control

Unfortunately,  most consumer video and audio recorders come with Automatic Gain Control or AGC. While it’s easier to record sound it also produces poor quality.

The problem is that the gain control monitors the loudness or quietness of what you’re recording and automatically adjusts the level. For example, when the interviewee pauses, the AGC raises the recording level which in turn causes an increases in the ambient sound. When the person begins talking again the recording level is lowered. This produces a pulsing effect with the ambient sound that’s difficult to eliminate without time consuming sound editing.

Do yourself a favor and spend enough to purchase a recorder that has a manual gain control. It’ll mean monitoring your audio input continually, but you’ll end up with good sound.

5. Failing to eliminate electronic hum and buzz

Electromagnetic radiation or EMR  is produced by such devices as power cables, computer monitors, radios, and TVs. Placing your video or audio recorder and audio cables next to these EMR sources can result in an audible hum or buzz.

Make sure that all your recording equipment is separated as far as possible from these EMR sources. Even a few inches can make a difference. If that’s not possible, try crossing your power cable at right angles to your mic cables.

the bottom line

Don’t push the record button until you’ve done everything possible to ensure that your audio will be pristine.

Photo by Alper Tecer

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Are You Asking the Courageous Questions?

“The key point [of my interviews] was empathy because everybody in their lives is really waiting for people to ask them questions, so that they can be truthful about who they are and how they became what they are.”

Marc Pachter , Cultural Historian

Marc Pachter founded  Living Self-Portraits at the Smithsonian and was its master interviewer.  In his TED talk below he shares the challenges of getting a good interview.

…if all you’re going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there’s no point in it. It’s pre-programmed. It’s infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we’re not going to share, …

Marc recounts several interviews and how he cut below the surface conversation to have his subjects reveal the truth of their lives.

Marc’s talk reminds  me of the advice I give to those I train for life story interviewing.  I tell my students they need to ask the “courageous  questions”. These are the questions that people have been waiting to be asked all of their lives. It requires courage on both sides. The interviewer must be confident enough to raise the questions. The interviewee must be unafraid to answer them.

Our work as personal historians, unlike  Marc Pachter’s,  seldom involves the famous. But the need to go beyond the pre-programmed responses is the same. How do we do that in a way that’s both incisive and empathetic? Here are some clues.

trust your intuition

Intuition is that ability of knowing without any rational explanation – a kind of sixth sense.  I’ve talked about this to some degree in a previous article, How to Listen with Your Eyes.

When we’re engaged in an interview, it’s not just the words we’re listening to but also the subtext. It’s the eyes that give us clues to what’s behind the words. Our subject may express happiness and contentment but the eyes are sad. We may hear kindness and openness  but the eyes are angry and narrowed.  If we’re doing our job well, we need to check out this dissonance with our interviewee. By listening with our eyes we unearth a richer more authentic story.

Trusting your intuition and blurting it out doesn’t mean that it’s always right. And that’s okay. People will set you straight if you’ve missed the mark.

As a rule, I generally preface my hunches with something like, “I have this feeling and I might be totally off base but I’d like to check it out…” [followed by the courageous question.]

With time and practice we can begin to trust our intuition and put it at the service of our clients.

Acknowledge the elephant

An elephant in the room can crush the intimacy from an interview. To help people express themselves and as Pachter says  “to feel what they … [want] to say and to be an agent of their self-revelation” we need to be fearless in acknowledging the elephant.

The caveat is that we must always be clear on our intent. We are the means through which people can speak unburdened. Our intent is not to embarrass, intimidate, or expose the interviewee.

For example, in my work I’ve found  that most of those at the end of life welcome an opportunity to talk about their fears and hopes. But I also know that  it’s not uncommon for friends and family of terminally-ill patients to avoid the subject of death altogether. While it’s perfectly understandable, such silence can leave the dying feeling even more isolated.

be curious

Curiosity is one of the key tools in an interviewer’s toolkit. It’s both playful and disarming.  The question begins  with “I wonder or I’m curious…” and invites an exploration between you and the interviewee.

Questions that are asked out of curiosity usually lead to responses that are authentic and deep.

For example,  after listening to your interviewee go on and on about their terrible childhood you might ask, “You’ve painted such a bleak picture of your childhood, I was wondering what were some of the good things that you can recall?”

Such a question stops the interviewee from the pre-programmed, infomercial described by Marc Pachter and gives the person an opportunity to dig deeper and uncover some bright spots.


As personal historians we owe it to our clients to ask the courageous questions. One’s life story is more than a sterile recitation of dates, names, places, and events. Ultimately it’s about the complexity and richness of a soul’s journey. Courageous questions unlock this richness and give heart and substance to a personal history.

Photo by Pulpolux

Thanks to my APH colleague Pat McNees of Writers and Editors for alerting me to Marc Pachter’s TED talk.

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How Prepared Are You to Interview Terminally Ill Clients?

Life continually challenges us with the unexpected.  And only a fool would attempt to prepare for the unforeseen. It does help though to go into uncharted territory with our eyes open to potential risks.

Interviewing terminally ill people for their life stories is  satisfying, worthwhile, and often moving work. Though it does come with precautions. I’ve previously written about some of these in Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories. and 7 Essential Questions to Consider.

Now imagine yourself in the following situation.

You’re interviewing an 80-year-old woman, Rose, who lives with her daughter, Sandra. The daughter provides much of the caregiving. Rose suffers from a number of heart-related problems.

This is your third visit. The daughter tells you that she’ll be out doing errands while you spend the next hour interviewing her mother. Sandra assures you she’ll be back within the hour. It’s just you and Rose alone in the house.

About halfway through the interview Rose develops severe pains in her chest. She asks you to hurry and get her nitro pills in the kitchen. You find a tray with numerous medications but nothing labeled nitro.

Back in  the living room you  explain this to Rose. She suggests you call her daughter whose cell phone number is on a message board in the kitchen. But when you try to find the number, it’s nowhere to be found.

Rose is becoming increasingly agitated and calls out to bring the tray of medication to her in the living room. A number of questions race through your head.

  • What if she picks the wrong medication with calamitous results?
  • If something goes wrong, what should I do?
  • I’ll have to leave soon for an urgent appointment and Sandra hasn’t returned home. Should I leave anyway?

What would you do?

As a general rule, it is vitally important that as a personal historian working with a terminally ill person, you don’t begin to undertake caregiving tasks. You weren’t hired for this and indeed may put yourself and your client at risk if you step into such a role.

Having said that, you could find yourself in a situation similar to the one described with Rose. And with no one available to help, you may have to step in.

Some suggestions.

There are a range of possible responses, none totally satisfactory. But here are some suggestions:

1. If Rose is registered with a local Hospice, there may be a number you can call for just such a crisis. Someone there would have a list of her medications and be able to help you. If she isn’t registered with Hospice, then go to step 2.

2. Assuming Rose is clear mentally, bring the tray and ask her to point to the nitro pills.  Read out the name of the drug and ask if these are indeed the nitro pills. If she confirms they are, then allow her to select the bottle and  take the prescribed dose. Don’t select the bottle for her.

3. Stay by Rose’s side and monitor her progress. If she shows signs of recovery, you can breathe easy. If her condition worsens, call 911.

4. Assuming all is well, you still have an urgent appointment to keep.  Sandra, Rose’s daughter, hasn’t returned. And you feel uncomfortable leaving Rose on her own. Here’s what you might do:

  • Ask Rose if there is a neighbor who could come over and stay until Sandra returns. If there is, contact the neighbor and have that person come over.
  • If there’s no one who can come over, I’d opt to stay until Sandra returns. As urgent as your appointment may be, it is not worth risking someone’s safety. Call and re-schedule your appointment.

A final word.

One way to avoid the kind of predicament  I’ve described is to make certain that you’re never alone with a person whose health is severely compromised. Don’t allow a family caregiver to use you as a means to get out of the house. Pleasantly and firmly point out that your arrangement with your client doesn’t involve caregiving responsibilities.

I’d appreciate your responses to this scenario. Please post your thoughts in the comment box below. I promise to respond to each one.

Photo by jan van schijndel

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Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.

                               ~Diane Ackerman

How much do we remember from our childhood? This is one of the questions examined recently by Canadian research scientists.

I’ve just finished reading Blanks for the Memories  which highlights aspects of the research originally published in the journal Child Development.

Neuroscientists believe that there are different kinds of memories, stored in many different neural circuits. “We can’t go to a particular spot in the brain to see where our third birthday party is stored,” says Dr. Hudson….

Scientists think the brain’s prefrontal cortex processes experiences, using sensory input from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, sorts them into categories, and tags the various memory fragments with specific associations (smells of home, friends from camp, bugs, a pet, for example).

Reading this made me realize how important the senses are to unlocking childhood memories. I must admit I could do a better job of incorporating sensory questions into my interviews. To get me pointed in the right direction, I’ve written a few sample “sensory” questions below.

I tested some out on my mother and she had great fun. It turns out that a taste she strongly associates with her childhood is jelly beans. Her mother would carefully count out five each for her and her two siblings. Today this may not sound like much but during The Depression jelly beans were a real treat!

How much do you incorporate sense-related questions into your interviews? Do you have a favorite “sensory” question?


  • What do you remember most about your mother’s appearance?
  • Paint a picture for me of where you lived – the weather, terrain.


  • What sounds do you associate with your childhood? What memories do they evoke?
  • What piece of music  do you remember from your childhood?


  • What was your favorite food when you were a child?
  • What tastes do you associate with your childhood?


  • What do you recall were things you loved to touch as a child,?
  • What do you remember liking to run your hands over or through?


  • What are some of the pleasant smells  you associate with your childhood? What memories do they bring back?
  • What smells from your childhood weren’t pleasant? What memories do they evoke?

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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What Do You Do When Facing a Reluctant Family Story Teller?

How many personal historians have found themselves in this situation? You have an enthusiastic client,  an adult child who really wants her mom or dad’s  life story told, but the parent is reluctant.

Behind the reluctance are usually a host of fears. But the fears expressed are not always the ones that are causing the hesitancy. I found myself in such a situation. I made several visits and telephone calls to a daughter and mother over the course of a month. The daughter was anxious to have her mother begin a life story project but her mother wasn’t. The daughter explained that her mother was insistent on first going through her collection of photos and letters.  What  eventually became apparent was that the mother was in the early stages of dementia and was fearful of not being able to recall past events. Unfortunately, we never got started.

In two previous articles, I wrote about such reluctance and some possible solutions:

more fears, more solutions

Since writing those articles, I’ve expanded the list of fears that dissuade some people from being interviewed. And I’ve suggested some possible solutions to these fears.

I’d like to add that none of these solutions are possible without a face-to-face meeting with the subject of the personal history. People need to see and hear you before they can decide if they’re comfortable enough to let you into their life.

The fear

Unpleasant and best forgotten stories will arise and cause me distress.

Possible solution

Explain to the interviewee that before starting you always ask if there are any parts of the person’s life story you should avoid. Make it clear that it’s perfectly acceptable for the interviewee not to answer questions that are about too sensitive a subject.

The fear

An inability to remember events, names, and dates will make me look foolish.

Possible solution

At the outset, explain that what is important are the stories not the names and dates. You might add, “For example, I could ask you if you have a childhood event that’s particularly memorable? Would you have something to tell me?” I find everyone has a favorite childhood story.

Also mention that the interviews will be done chronologically. There’ll be time for reflection by the interviewee and an opportunity to jot down some notes in preparation for each interview session.

The fear

I’ve never been interviewed before and don’t know what to expect or how to act.

Possible solution

Most people’s knowledge of interviewing comes from watching TV news and public affairs shows. These can be provocative, hard hitting, and sometimes sensational. No wonder people have some apprehension about being interviewed!

It’s important to address that fear by pointing out that a personal history interview is more like a conversation between friends. It isn’t an interrogation. Also explain that the interview is in their control. You won’t ask questions they don’t want asked and they are free to stop at any point if they’re unhappy with the interview.

The fear

I don’t have anything worthwhile to say.

Possible solution

This is a common fear. Explain that every life has stories that’ll be of interest to families and future generations. We bring to the interview the wisdom of our experience. We’ve lived through interesting times and can talk about it from a personal perspective. We’ve had heartaches and successes and have lessons to share. All of this is compelling stuff.

The fear

I might say something that will unintentionally cause heartache for a family member.

Possible solution

Assure the interviewee that anything said can be edited from the interview. The person will also have an opportunity to read the final draft of the book or view a fine cut of the video. If there is still something that the interviewee doesn’t  feel comfortable with, it can be removed.

The fear

If I have my life story told, people will think I’m putting on airs.

Possible solution

Explain that outside of the immediate family no one need know the interviewee has published a personal history. Family members are the ones who’ll be most interested in the stories and want to see the project proceed.


Photo by Steve Snodgrass

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The Secret to Recording Audio Like the Pros.

How would you like your voice to be remembered? If it’s recorded for posterity, hopefully you’d want the audio to be crystal clear, natural, and devoid of background distractions.

As personal historians we owe it to our clients to record the best quality audio interviews possible. I know some of you may be saying, “But I produce books and so the audio isn’t critical. I only use the audio for transcription purposes.”

I beg to differ. For families, hearing the voice of a loved one years after their death is a special gift. So even if you just produce books, it’s still essential to provide your clients with an archival set of well recorded interviews. Sound counts. Don’t mess it up!

I learned about producing high quality audio recordings from the sound recordist I used on my early documentaries. At first he drove me nuts with his perfectionism. But I learned valuable lessons from him that I still apply to my personal history interviews today.

Here’s how to record like a pro:

Use a top-notch digital audio recorder.

Good sound starts with good equipment and there are many choices out there. I previously wrote about some of these here and here.

Among personal historians there are those who favor the Marantz recorders – PMD661PMD 620, or PMD 660. Some like the Fostex FR2-LE . The Zoom H4 and H2 are popular with others. All are good choices with the nod going to those that have XLR microphone inputs. These inputs allow for the use of quality professional mics.

The bottom line is to use the best recorder your budget can afford.

Use a high quality microphone. 

Don’t rely on the built in microphones on your audio recorders or cameras. Trust me, they produce poor sound. Buy the best condenser lavaliere (lapel) omnidirectional microphone you can afford.  Expect to pay from $100 to $400. Quality costs  but you won’t regret it. Why an omnidirectional condenser mic? The sound quality for interview purposes is  better than with a directional microphone.

For more information on microphones check out these articles:

Which Lavaliere Should I Use?

Guide to Lavaliere Microphones

Record in a quiet environment.

Stay indoors. It’s nearly impossible to control outdoor sounds what with planes, car horns, kids shouting, loud birds, and wind. Inside a home find the quietest room. It’s usually the living room or bedroom because of the carpeted floors and draped windows. Make sure to pull the drapes closed and shut the door.  The more sound absorbing  surfaces that surround you, the better the sound.

Take a moment to listen for any unwanted background sounds – ticking clocks, air conditioner or furnace fans, refrigerator, fluorescent light buzz, radio or TV, computer hum. Ask your interviewee if you might turn these “noise generators” off. And don’t forget to disconnect the telephone! A word of caution. Before leaving, make sure you’ve turned everything back on.

Always use headphones.

You can’t monitor the audio without wearing a good set of headphones. My advice is to use circumaural headphones – ones that go fully around the ear. This type of headphone is comfortable to wear and produces quality sound.  Sony, Audio-Technica, and Sennheiser are good makes. Expect to pay between $100 and $200 for an entry level headphone.

Listen for unwanted background sounds such as those mentioned above. In addition, be attentive for your interviewee popping “Ps” or producing sibilant “Ss”.  Moving the lapel mic so that it’s not in a direct line with the subject’s mouth can sometimes help.

Run a short test of your equipment.

Before leaving for your interview check your recorder, mic, and headphones to ensure everything is working properly. Once you’re at your interviewee’s home, take a moment to test the audio. Ask your subject an easy question such as, “Tell me about a favorite meal of yours.” or “Describe the room we’re sitting in.”  Stop and replay the recording listening carefully to the quality of the sound. If it’s clear and free of unwanted noise, you’re good to go.


Poor audio is the mark of an amateur. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good recorder, microphone, and headphone. And you can quickly learn to monitor your recording environment to get the best sound possible. By following these tips you’ll record audio like a pro and leave your clients with a treasured audio legacy.

Photo by  flora cyclam

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What Everybody Ought to Know About Life Stories and Palliative Care.

I’ve been writing about the value of life stories in palliative care since 2008. I felt it was time to assemble these articles in one place for those of you who are interested in this subject. The posts are arranged chronologically from the most recent to the oldest.

Photo by David Hsu

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How to Start and Run a Personal History Business.

Disclosure. I’ve contributed one small item to this book but I will not be receiving any renumeration from its sale.

I’ve just finished Jennifer Campbell’s recent book  Start and Run a Personal History Business published by Self-Counsel Press. If you’re thinking of making personal histories a business, you owe it to yourself to get this book. Jennifer knows her stuff. She’s been a professional personal historian since 2002 and prior to that had a 25 year career as an editor, writer, and interviewer.

This 180 page book is packed with the kind of information I wish I had when I was starting out. The 16 Chapters cover:

  • the world of personal history
  • the business of personal history
  • getting started
  • business foundations
  • pricing
  • producing a sample
  • a guide to producing a personal history
  • interviewing
  • marketing
  • an online presence
  • publicity and promotion
  • sales
  • client relations and customer service
  • time management and project management
  • growing your business
  • accelerating your success and managing growth

In addition, the book comes with a CD-ROM which includes all of the sample templates used in the book as well as resources to help you in your business.

If you buy Personal History Business for nothing else than the chapter on pricing, it’s well worth the investment. For personal historians who are starting out, determining what to charge clients is a challenge. Jennifer’s detailed step-by-step approach will give you the help you need to ensure that you keep your business profitable.

What struck me about the book is that Jennifer makes it clear that running a personal history business takes more than just a love of people and their stories. Her book is like a splash of cold water.  After reading it, if you’re still enthusiastic about establishing a personal history business, you’ll  go into it with your eyes wide open. A word of caution. Don’t become overwhelmed by the content. There’s a lot to digest. Read it through once for an overview and then come back to chew on smaller portions.

I like Jennifer’s candor. For example, on business plans she says, “Like a lot of small business owners, I resisted doing a business plan for a long time. I think it was a psychological block…I finally got some serious business coaching…”  In my eyes, her honesty makes her more credible because I know that she’s writing from personal experience.

The book is also sprinkled with useful tips. They’re terrific. And I wish she’d included more of them and highlighted them so they stood out from the surrounding copy. This brings me to my only real concern and that’s the overall layout and design of the book.

My personal preference is for some breathing space around blocks of text. I found the information on the pages visually congested. I longed for more white space, bolder titles, and little sidebars with tidbits of information, like her “tips”.  I would have found it easier to absorb the wealth of material with more visual help. Having said this, I’m aware that there are production costs to consider when designing a book. And Self-Counsel Press, the publishers,  probably have a standard layout from which there can be  little deviation.

Layout and design aside, this is an excellent book. If you’re serious about establishing a personal history business, you need to do two things -  buy a copy of  Start & Run A Personal History Business and join the Association of Personal Historians.

From the Archives: Avoid These Three Interviewing Pitfalls.

Avoid These Three Interviewing Pitfalls. A good interview is at the heart of any personal history. I train and mentor Hospice volunteers  in Victoria on the art of life story interviewing. It’s part of a program being offered by Victoria Hospice. I’ve found  several interviewing  pitfalls that I suspect are universal to those new to the craft.  Here’s a look at three: … Read More

From the Archives: Caution: End-of-Life Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories.

Caution: End-of-Life Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories. Previously I have written here about interviewing people who are living with a terminal illness.  There are benefits for patients  in capturing the stories of their lives and conveying special messages to loved ones, but a word of caution. It can also be a time when traumatic incidents from a person’s past can resurface. These could involve physical or sexual abuse, loss of a child, and so on. You’re not likely to encounter such stories  but it … Read More