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.
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.
At Victoria Hospice we’re into the third year of a Life Stories service for patients registered with Hospice. This is a program that I initiated and continue to be involved with as a trainer and a mentor for our Life Stories Volunteer Interviewers… Read more.
The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. ~ James A. Baldwin
Imagine that you’re coming to the last chapter of a book or the final hour of a video life story you’re doing. It may be your own or it could be a story you’ve been hired to record. Every detail has been covered from childhood to the present. How can you wrap up this life story in a way that feels satisfying? As a colleague said, “The book is ending; the life is not.”… More
The following article is reprinted with the kind permission of Personal Historian, Sally Goldin. She is a member of the Association of Personal Historians and can be contacted here.
As a lesbian mother and personal historian, I’ve been thinking about the issue of LGBT invisibility in regards to preserving life stories.
Even though LGBT issues have become more visible and acceptable in this society, there are still situations where you can be fired, harassed, or physically attacked for being an LGBT person. I was clearly reminded of this because of the harassment and discrimination a teacher friend of mine experienced in the Houston Independent School District. In this YouTube presentation to the Board of the H. I. S. D. he describes the harassment he encountered. (The picture clears up at 30seconds). This is a person who had previously been named Teacher of the Year twice in 5 years.
I wonder how many of us are aware of the language we use, both on an everyday basis, and in presentations about personal history? You cannot tell if someone is lesbian or gay by looking at them. (Well, maybe sometimes you can, but not always . . .) Therefore, we have to be conscious of the words we use in conversation, and make an effort to be inclusive in our communications.
For example, a simple question such as, “Are you married?” might be difficult for a lesbian or gay man to answer, depending on where they live. I live in San Francisco. I would not be allowed to marry a romantic partner.
During an interview with a woman, without thinking, you might ask, “Do you remember your first date? What was he like?” It would be more appropriate to say, “Do you remember your first date? What was the person like?
If you are getting to know someone, ask about a “sweetheart” or “special someone” instead of a boyfriend (for a female) and girlfriend (for a male).
Do you offer a family tree as part of your services? If so, how do you incorporate into that tree a child who has 2 moms or 2 dads? My son is now 25 years old and his family tree would include his 2 moms, his donor father, a half sister and a half brother with the same “donor dad”, 3 other unknown half-siblings, my ex-partner’s wife who has known him since he was 10 years old, and 3 sets of grandparents (from his 2 moms and his
When talking to a group about personal history, remember to use the term “family” or “parents” as opposed to “Mom and Dad”.
Don’t assume that if a family is Hispanic or African American (or some other non-white ethnicity), they would not have lesbian or gay family members.
I am grateful and proud to be a member of the Association of Personal Historians, an organization that strives to be inclusive and diverse, and where I do not have to hide all of who I am from the membership.
Some feel that details count because they can enrich a life story by providing a social history context for it. They suggest that what might be tedious to the interviewer could in fact be fascinating to family members now and in the future.
Other personal historians see a need to be selective with details, choosing only those that enhance a story – sifting out the chaff and creating a more readable and entertaining narrative.
But the debate about how much detail to include is better settled after thinking through the following questions:
Books are more suited to detail than video. Video’s strength is in storytelling, broad strokes, and emotional content.
What’s the budget?
If you want detail, it’s going to take time and time costs money. Ten or more hours of interview isn’t uncommon for a full life story.
While your client might want their very own version of Gone with the Wind, their budget restrictions point to a more modest affair like Swayed by the Breeze.
How open and revealing is your storyteller?
Some people need little prompting to unleash a wealth of detailed stories. Then there are those who are more reticent. No matter how sensitive and clever your questions, you’re lucky to get the bare bones of the person’s life.
What kind of questions are you asking?
The interview is at the core of a comprehensive and entertaining personal history. I’ve written extensively about the art of interviewing in 11 Articles on Interviewing .
If you want to get the stories behind a life, avoid questions that focus exclusively on names, dates, and places. Instead, use open-ended questions that begin with How, Where, When, What, and Why. And don’t read from a series of scripted questions. Make sure to go deeper with prompts like “And then what happened?”
I believe that details can enrich a life story. Ultimately though, we’re hired as professionals to edit and weave those details into a coherent and engaging story.
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.
In this Monday’s Link Roundup have some fun with Literary Games for Bored Book Nerds. For something serious be sure to read Oral history, unprotected. And memoir writers will find two interesting articles, What Exactly Happened and ‘Memoir Project’ Gives Tips For Telling Your Story.
On Acknowledgements. “Anyone who wants to study writers’ idiosyncrasies need look no further than their acknowledgments…Acknowledgments also offer an all-too-rare view of the writer as actual human being.”
Oral history, unprotected. “Researchers who conduct oral history have no right to expect courts to respect confidentiality pledges made to interview subjects, according to a brief filed by the US Justice Department on Friday.”
The case for and against the Oxford comma. “When linking three or more elements, some writers place a comma before the “and”: bell, book, and candle. That’s known as the Oxford comma (or serial comma). Other writers don’t use that comma: bell, book and candle. Wars have been fought over less.”
‘Memoir Project’ Gives Tips For Telling Your Story – NPR. “Everyone has a story to tell, but writer and memoir writing instructor Marion Roach Smith says making those stories interesting and readable is harder than it looks.” [Thanks to APH member Pat Kuessner for alerting me to this item.]
Literary Games for Bored Book Nerds. “In the New York Times this week, Dwight Garner writes about literary games one can play with friends that aren’t anxiety-inducing. He writes, “Many people flee from games they fear will be public I.Q. tests or will expose gaps in their literary knowledge.” So true. Which is why we at Flavorpill would like to introduce a few games into your summer repertoire,..”
“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 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.
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.