Here are 12 "Do" and "Don't do" tips for a great interview

Why do oral history?

Here’s what Maddie Colbert,
a junior at South High School
in Minneapolis, says:

“For years, I have learned about
segregation and discrimination in
school. I have read books about
Rosa Parks, watched movies about
Martin Luther King Jr., and seen plays
about the Little Rock Nine. But meeting
Betty Ellison-Harpole was so different.

She had actually lived through this
difficult time and could recall, in detail,
wanting to know what ‘white’ water
tasted like. Hearing Ms. Ellison’s stories
of growing up in a time when there was
such a thing as white water and how
she overcame the hatred and
discrimination to become a life-changing
woman was invaluable.”

Do your homework and prepare 10-12 questions.
Learn what you can about the person you’re going to interview and the topic you want to focus on. Your questions will be better, and the person you interview will appreciate your effort.

Don’t talk too much.
You are there to record someone else’s experiences, not talk about yourself. Take some time to converse with your subject before you start the interview so that you’re comfortable with each other. During the interview, use your questions to help prompt your subject’s memories and get them to tell stories.

Do ask open-ended questions.
-Start questions with who, what, when, where, why or how.
-Ask one question at a time.
-Keep questions brief.
-Begin with easier questions and ask more sensitive and tougher questions later.

Don’t rush the interview.
Allow for pauses and gaps in your subject’s memory. She or he has a lot to think about! Some people need to pause and think – get comfortable with the silence.

Do listen quietly and carefully and actively.
Maintain eye contact. Don’t look bored or disinterested. People may assume you don’t care.

Don’t interrupt.
If you think of a question, jot it down, and ask it later. If something isn’t clear, ask a follow-up question. People will appreciate that you want to understand and get things right.

Do try to keep your subject (politely) on topic.

An interview is a guided conversation. If she or he rambles, wait for a pause and try something like: “That’s very interesting. Now before we continue, I would like to find out more about how immigrating to the U.S. affected your family.”

Here are some other great resources for exploring Black History and oral history:

Check out examples of archived life stories of African Americans gathered during a partnership between The National Museum of African American History and Culture and StoryCorps, a nationwide project that has collected more than 30,000 interviews from all over the United States.

The Minnesota Historical Society has recorded interviews and other materials about the experiences of blacks in Minnesota. Click here for more MHS information on oral histories and recording them.

Do try to get specific details about your narrator’s memories.
-If he or she is having trouble describing a person, ask the narrator to start with the person’s appearance and then elaborate on character traits.
-Do try to establish your narrator’s role at important points in the story. Remember to ask who, what, when, where, why or how questions.

Don’t challenge a story if a detail seems wrong to you.
-Try to get as much specific information as you can for later research.
-Tactfully point out to your narrator where his or her account differs from others, try “I have heard…” to clarify the narrator’s story.
-Avoid “off the record” information. If you have to turn off the recorder, your oral history will be missing important details.

Do keep the oral history brief.
If you or your subject are tired or distracted, you won’t get a good story anyway. Schedule a specific time and stick to it. You can always schedule a second interview.

Do thank the person you interviewed.
They’ve shared stories and time. If you write something based on the interview, offer to share it with them.

Do review the tape afterwards.
What did you learn? What surprised you? What would you like to know more about? What would you do differently next time? If you were writing a profile of this person, how would you begin?