Resources for Oral History

Good Interviewing Skills

A good interview makes the subject feel comfortable and invites him or her to tap into memories and share rich details of his or her life. Following are some tips that will help you generate a list of successful interview questions:

  • Make a list of topics you want to know about.
  • Prepare questions that will address these topics.
  • Phrase your questions so that they are open-ended and don’t elicit a “yes” or “no” answer.
  • Prompt your subject with questions that use phrases such as “tell me about…, ” “explain to me…,” “talk to me about your feelings on….”
  • Avoid complicated and long questions. Keep it simple.
  • Stay neutral. Don’t ask “leading” questions that make your subject feel as if there’s a right or wrong answer.
  • Group your questions together in an order that seems logical.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch things around or interrupt your question order during the interview.
  • Sometimes you won’t be able to anticipate the direction in which a conversation will go and following-up with a question will prove to be key to unearthing your subject’s story.
  • Don’t interrupt responses.
  • Ask for visual descriptions of people, places, or objects.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes your subject will want to pause and reflect.