My Personal
FAMILY ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
site: fohp.info - file: whtquest.htm

What Questions Should Be Asked? (β)

Come prepared but be flexible —
you may be surprised at what you will learn.

     As mentioned earlier, don't walk into this interview thinking that you can just pull questions out of your head, on the fly, with no preparation. You're going to organize your recording equipment — organize your mind as well

     These recording sessions usually diverge from your planned series of questions — it is Okay to let the subject's mind wander to wherever they wish to go, and follow along at their pace. You may be amazed at where it leads the conversation.

Bring a pen and paper, take notes, follow up on what has been said.

     Assuming that you are writing down logical followup questions to be asked at some point, you might find that getting through someone's life up to their entry into kindergarten might take an hour, easily. Talk about the games that they played, their favorite places to play, family holidays, ... the wealth of information that is there to be had with simple followup questions during the course of a conversation is immense. However, you need to be quick of wit to pick up on some things that are only being hinted at; not because the subject is necessarily trying to hide the info — maybe they just have left some detail out because they think that is boring — that nobody would care about hearing that little tidbit. If it is even vaguely interesting to you, it is likely to be exceedingly interesting to some distant future family member 150 years from now.

     Don't overthink the questions — go with the flow of the topics. Keep your questions simple and direct (you're not an attorney cross-examining a hostile witness that you're hoping to trip-up and go "Ah Hah!"). When the subject has exhausted everything that they have to say on the current topic area, have your list of new topic areas at hand, and ask a question that might actually be subtly related to the previous topic area.

     In a real conversation, a speaker will occasionally stop to reflect upon something before continuing to speak — you're not killing dead air on a radio station — silence is okay here. (if it gets to be too long, well, you can just edit some of that pregnant pause out of the tape at a later time).

     Before the interview ever starts let the subject know that the recordings will be edited — if they sneeze, no problem, you'll edit it out. If they burp, you'll edit it out. If they fart, you'll edit it out. If they need to go to the bathroom, you'll stop the tape recorder and then resume when everybody has had a break. This conversation has no strict, rigidly-defined rules; let the subject feel at ease with the questions and with the manner in how they will be asked and how you'll permit them to answer. No time limits ("you've got 30 seconds to answer because I'm running out of tape"). Tape time getting short? Gently suggest that everyone take a short break, to get water, to go to the bathroom, to just get up and stretch their legs. During the break the recording engineer will be able to flip the tape cassette to the "fresh" side and be ready to go when everyone has returned and is ready to resume the conversation. It really doesn't matter on which side of the tape a question is asked & answered — you'll be cutting and pasting things together later in the computer anyway.

     The best outcome for an interview session is one in which the interview subject completely forgets that their responses are being recorded. The best followup questions are meant to encourage the subject to elaborate on something that they have mentioned ... fill in details that will lead them into a train of thought that neither the subject or interviewer had ever thought to bring up until just that moment. (possibly something that the interviewer had been completely unaware of prior to that moment when it comes out during casual conversation)

     "Wow", "That's Neat" and other appreciative exclamations are perfectly acceptible — you're not a journalist; no journalistic detachment is required. Your own expressed appreciation of what the interview subject is saying helps to encourage them to contribute more on that topic and serves to identify to future listeners just how special the statement was. Don't be afraid to put on the spoken record your reasons for an exclamation — three generations hence, much of what we take for granted now will loose it's cultural context. The explanation will help provide that context for future listeners.

     The recordings you are making are not being done to just assemble a compendium of dry facts — their real value is in how they convey the thoughts, the fears, the joys, the reasoning of the interview subject. You're helping the future understand why the decisions that were made came to be. Explaning the Why of what they have done will be the most valuable of the 5 W's that they address (Who, What, When Where, Why).




Return to the Main Page
«or go to the next topic»
What Questions Should Not Be Asked?

    Page last updated
     12-17-2012