Every time I call my 93-year old cousin, Agnes, I have pen and paper handy.
She never fails to provide new information about long gone family members that I never knew, like my great-grandparents.
My conversations with Agnes, and other family members, have taught me much about interviewing people of any age.
- Be prepared before the conversation begins. Have paper and a writing instrument at the ready. Get yourself a drink in case you get a dry mouth or feel a cough coming on, and find a comfortable place to sit. If recording the conversation, familiarize yourself with your recording equipment and make sure everything is fully charged.
- Ask closed- and open-ended questions. Examples: What was your favorite grade in elementary school? (closed) What about that year made it your favorite? (open)
- Let the interviewee go down rabbit trails a bit, but gently steer them back on topic. Example: You start by asking your grandmother about her mother’s garden. She talks about it for minute, comments that her father plowed the bed for her mother and then proceeds on to some tangent about her father. At an opportune time, ask, “Tell me more about what your mother planted in her garden?”
- Fill the silence. Silence between questions or after a question is asked may feel awkward. Taking a pause occasionally gives the interviewee a chance to collect his or her thoughts.
- Correct little mistakes the interviewee makes. Let’s say your grandfather mixes up the birthdates of his brothers. Don’t make this detail a hill you want to die on because it may sideline the entire conversation if the person feels attacked, doubted or ridiculed. Just let it go and let him keep going with the story.
- Forget to thank the interviewee for telling you about their grandfather or mother or growing up on a ranch or whatever it was you talked about. Ask if you can speak with them again sometime. Most likely you’ll get a yes to that request.
How about you? What do’s and don’ts would you add? Comment below, please! I’m always looking for ways to improve.
Copyright © 2014 Nancy H. Vest All Rights Reserved