8 Interview Tactics to Borrow From Oral History

At the suggestion of Don Smith, I went on a limb and am taking Oral History: The Art of the Interview during this, my last semester at Columbia. Don, one of the Documentary III instructors, said it'd be useful to learn about interviewing techniques from a different point of view.

I've learned a lot from Oral History (49-3672), taught by Dr Erin McCarthy, and I'd definitely recommend it to any documentary film students, although it's a pretty intensive class. Over the course of the semester, you learn about collecting audio or video personal narratives from (extra)ordinary people involved in history at the ground level, and then you conduct an interview of your own which gets put in an archive used by scholars on whatever the particular subject is (this semester it's anti-Apartheid activism in Chicago).

I thought I'd share some of the lessons I've learned about how to interview from an Oral History perspective, which, although not exactly the same as documentary purposes, are similar and certainly interesting.

* A good question hardly ever starts with “Did you…” because that often leads to a yes or no answer.

* If you are asking your subject to recall events in their life, do it in chronological order that it actually happened in: you want to guide them through history in a linear way.

* Save reflective questions– those asking them about how they feel about past events today– for the end of the interview. They'll have just been recalling the events for you and they'll be in a mode where they can offer judgement on them much better at that point.

* When interviewing somebody who has been interviewed several times before (i.e. politicians etc) and will likely have prepared or stale answers, oral historians will first open them up with a question or two about their childhood, to shake them out of their soundbite mode into true recall.

* Super broad questions (“how do you feel about racism?”) aren't good– oral historians usually try to ask questions that put a specific image in the interviewee's mind.

* Don't assume, lead or judge with your questions; allow the interviewee to choose how they want to answer them. In the same vein, don't give choices in your questions (i.e. “were you mad or sad when…”), let the interviewee tell you how they feel because they may feel pressured to choose one of your options even though that isn't how they really feel.

* Outline for your subject how the interview will work before you start if there are different categories of questions you plan on asking.

* Don't ask compound questions with multiple parts if you can avoid it because people will tend to only answer the last part because it's the part they'll remember. Feel free to break complicated questions into multiple questions.