Category Archives: Interviewing

Encore! When Small Can Be Profound.

Not long ago I was asked to audio record some final words from a young mother who was dying from cancer.  I’ll call her Sonia to protect the family’s privacy. She was in her early thirties and she wanted to leave something for her only child, a five-year-old boy…Read more.

Encore! Are You Asking the Courageous Questions?

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…Read more.

Encore! 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…Read more.

Encore! Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

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…Read more.

Encore! Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On?

What part of a Life Story do you focus on when it appears patients may have only a few weeks or days to live? Patients may initially indicate that they want to talk about the broad spectrum of their lives from childhood to the present. The reality, unfortunately, is that they’re not likely to have enough time to complete such an undertaking. Here’s what I’ve suggested…Read more.

Encore! How to Use “Acknowledgement” to Build a Better Interview.

I find the use of “acknowledgment” in a personal history interview one way to build rapport with my interviewee.  It’s a particularly effective technique after you’ve been told a touching  story… Read more.

Don’t Do This!

Don’t worry. If you’re expecting this to be another New Year’s admonishment about unhealthy eating, excessive drinking, or lack of exercise, it isn’t. It’s about what not to do if you want to get the best life story interview with your client.

Recently there’s been some discussion among my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians about the way to record life story interviews.  Some personal historians use a digital voice recorder. Others prefer taking notes by hand or typing the interview directly into their laptop.

The latter make it clear they can type as fast as people talk, edit on the fly, maintain eye contact, and save the time and costs of transcribing the interview. For those who take notes by hand, they explain that this helps them keep the story to the essentials.They may record the interview for reference to ensure the accuracy of quotes. All point out that this method of interviewing is what they’re comfortable with and their clients are happy with their work.

But achieving the best interview possible has nothing to do with the time and cost of transcriptions, what process a personal historian is most comfortable with, or editing on the fly. These are all factors that speak to the preferences of the personal historian not the quality of the interview.

5 good reasons to ditch the laptop and handwritten notes.


1. An integral and invaluable part of any personal history is recording and preserving the spoken word. Hearing  a loved one’s voice is a precious remembrance for bereaved families and future generations. Personal histories involve more than assembling edited transcripts into a story.

2. Laptops and note taking are distracting. I know this from having been interviewed a number of times by journalists. Imagine for a moment that you’re  talking to a columnist. You’re pouring your heart out but she’s writing nothing down. Then you move on to something that seems insignificant and the writer starts scribbling furiously. You wonder why these comments  elicited such a response. It’s unnerving. It’ll be unnerving for your clients too.

3. Multitasking doesn’t work. There is now sufficient research to show that the mind can’t process more than one thing at a time.  People can’t type or take notes and be fully engaged with a client at the same time. Trust me. It can’t be done.

4. Editing decisions are best made after not during an interview. It’s not possible to tell what portions of a narrative need to be dropped until you have a feel for the whole story. An item that seems of little importance at the time of the interview may turn out to be a crucial element in the story.

5. Listening to your interviews improves your skills. There’s tremendous value in recording an interview and being able to play it back. I do it all the time. For one thing, it enables you to see what follow-up questions to ask. But equally important, it gives you an opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses as an interviewer.


Not all approaches are equal when it comes to recording personal histories.  Choose a good digital recorder and microphone over a laptop or handwritten notes. Your clients will thank you.

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Photo by DonkeyHotey

My Top 10 Posts of 2011.

It’s the end of the year and time for list making.  These are the posts from 2011 that were the most popular with readers.  If you’ve missed some of them, now’s  your chance to catch up over the holidays. Enjoy!

  1. The 50 Best Life Story Questions.
  2. 25 No Cost or Low Cost Marketing Ideas for Your Personal History Business.
  3. How Much Should You Pay a Personal Historian?
  4. 15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.
  5. 5 Top Sites for Free Online Videography Training.
  6. The Top 3 Prosumer HD Camcorders Under $2,500.
  7. How to Boost Your Interviewing Skills.
  8. Three Crucial Steps to Starting Your Personal History Business.
  9. 5 Print-On-Demand Sites You’ll Want to Consider.
  10. 12 Top Rated Family Tree Makers.

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Encore! The #1 Secret to a Successful Life Story Interview.

Picture this. You sit down to conduct a personal history interview. You pull out your voice recorder and your client looks stricken. You reassure her that there’s no need to worry and ask your first question. She looks at the floor and gives a brief two or three word response.  It doesn’t get any better. It feels as though your “pulling teeth”. Beads of perspiration break out on your forehead. You finish the interview and leave for home, tired and discouraged.

What went wrong?… Read more.

4 Ways to Get Control of a Runaway Interview.

A weakness common to novice interviewers  is their inability to take charge of an interview.  Interviews frequently look  like a runaway train with the interviewer gamely hanging on to the proverbial  little red caboose.

Taking charge doesn’t mean forcing or dictating the direction of the interview. It’s more like riding a horse. Anyone familiar with riding knows that it requires confidence and a gentle hold on the reins. The same  approach applies to interviewing.

Here are four ways to keep control of your interview:

1. From the outset be clear what you want from the interview.

If you’re clear before you start on the topic that you want to explore and its parameters then it makes it easier  to stay on track.

For example, if you know you want to capture a client’s childhood stories about summer holidays, then start your interview by saying something like, “Tom, today I’d like you to think back to your childhood and your summer holidays. What’s a particularly strong memory of the games you played?”

2. Use short, focused questions.

The more precise your questions the more specific the answers from your interviewees.  For example, a good question would be “What was your Mother’s special gift or talent?” A poor question would be “Tell me about your family.”

Questions that aren’t specific make interviewees anxious because they don’t know what you’re searching for.  If you continue to follow-up with vague, unfocused questions, their trust will erode and so will the interview.

3. Gently interrupt.

It’s difficult, I know. It seems somehow impolite. But you’d be surprised how many people really don’t mind being interrupted in an interview. In fact they appreciate that you’re paying attention and bringing them back on topic.

To  interrupt  politely wait for your interviewee to pause before stepping in.  For example, “Margaret, this is a fascinating story about your aunt. Later we’ll be taking more time  to talk about your extended family. But I’d like to come back to the earlier question I asked about your mother?”

It’s important to acknowledge the interviewees’ remarks, assure them that the topic will be covered, and then gently nudge them back on track.

4. Go where there’s passion.

Sometimes it’s best to throw your plans out the window. An apparent innocent question on your part might trigger  a strong emotional response in your interviewees that has no apparent connection to your question.  If this happens,  take the time to explore the story behind the emotion.

Clearly your interviewees wants to talk about this now. If you put them off by forcing them back on topic, you can lose a really important story.


If you’re just starting out as a professional personal historian, I hope these suggestions will be helpful. Use them as guidelines not as hard and fast rules. Interviewing is more an art than a science.  With experience comes an intuitive sense of how to guide an interview and get the best possible story.

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Photo by Mazeau