Notes on a first interview

Interviewing. People in Conversations Reader Daria of Missoula, Montana, stopped by the site to say that she’d bought a recorder that she saw mentioned here – the Zoom H2 Handy recorder. Her first report was: “I LOVE IT. OK – granted I’ve only had it for a week….but I think it’s great. Thanks! My dad was the first test.”

So I asked her some questions about how its use was, first time around. Here are my questions and her responses.

Susan: Have you ever done any recording before?

Daria: No

Susan: Describe the steps you took to conduct that first interview of your Dad

Daria: Wrote out questions (which I didn’t really follow – but was a good starting point. Made sure baby was occupied (quiet). Just started. Definetely room for improvement.

Susan:  How were you and your Dad situated (seating arrangment)? Where did you place the recorder?

Daria:  We were both sitting at the kitchen table.  He was at the head of the table and I was next to him.  My sister, who also asked some questions, was sitting to my right.  The recorder was in front of dad, but angled to me.  I set the recorder so that the microphone would pick up in 360 degrees.

Susan:  What capacity SD card did you buy to go with your Zoom H2?

Daria:  It came with a 512 MB—but I just bought a 2 GB too.  It look like the 2 GB will hold about 3 hrs (.WAV)

Susan:  What type of audio file (format) did you create?

Daria:  .WAV since I read it was the best quality.  I will probably convert it to .MP3 later, but at least I will always have a good quality file.

Susan:  How easy (or difficult) was it to use? 

Daria:  Very easy—although I must admit that I read the entire manual for specifics.  I was able to record right out of the box—but couldn’t figure out how to play back without reading a bit.  Of course—I have no other experience with recording equipment.

Susan:  Is there anything you learned from your first go-round that you’ll be applying the next time?

Daria:  Well—we were all a little nervous.  I think once I have more interviews under my belt it would go more smoothly.  Also—it was almost harder with my sister there because she kept sidetracking my dad from my questions.  I also asked some pretty boring simple questions (birthdate, place of birth) that maybe I should just skip and go right for stories.  I am hooked—but need to learn how to interview better…… Any suggestions?

Suggestions and Observations

First, the “boring” questions are good. Someone who listens later to the interview that doesn’t know all people there will appreciate that basic information. It breaks the ice and helps get you past the “OMG, we’re recording this conversation!!” jitters.

This summer I digitized a tape that was made by my grandfather’s cousin at a family reunion on the occasion of my great-great uncle’s 100th birthday. (I did not attend.) Grandpa’s cousin very helpfully identified the speakers at the conclusion of their story or son. Except for one thing. He identified his cousins—my grandpa, great uncle, and mother—but not himself or his brothers and sisters. It was obvious that he was thinking in terms of sharing the tape with his side of the family, where those voices are known. But I don’t know that side of the family; I can’t identify them by their voices.

It may feel boring or simple or stupid “Well, duh! Everyone here knows who everyone else is and it feels goofy to say who’s who.” Dare to feel goofy and say those names, and identify everyone there.

Not identifying people is one of the most common oversights with interviews received in the Veterans History Project, according to Darlene Richardson from the Veterans Health Administration, in a hallway conversation at October’s Oral History Association conference in Oakland. Consider the person listening to the recording, which begins something like this “Okay. It’s running now. So, Dad, how did you get into the service?” If you don’t know the person, your first thoughts are, “Who’s Dad? Where is this taking place?”

A sample introduction statement

I begin recordings with a statement to this effect: “Today is December 13, 2007 and we’re here at my parents’ house in Anytown, California. I’m Jane Doe, and I’m here talking with my Dad, John Doe, for the Veterans History project.

Today is ____[date]____ and we’re here at ____[location]_____ in ____[city]____, ____[state]____. I’m ___[my name]____, and I’m here talking with my ____[relation]____, _____[interviewee’s name]____.

If you are doing this for a specific purpose, then mention it. 

We’re making this recording for the _____[name of project]_____.

If I take a break, or create more than one recording, I’ll begin again with a statement like this:

This is part 2 of a recording made on ____[date]____. I’m ____[my name]____ talking to ____[interviewee’s name]____.

When it comes to interviewing better…

Daria says, “I …need to learn how to interview better.” So do I. I mean that, seriously. Some things I’ve learned so far about the art of interviewing—the interviewer straddles over some seemingly-conflicting arenas. Although I know that you can conduct interviews on the phone, I’ll assume for the moment that you are physically present with the interviewee.

Straddling time:
You’re in the moment with the person, right there and then.
But you’re also observing this conversation at a remove, wanting to make this interview work for a later time, when people don’t know all the things you know.

Straddling space (and visual senses):
You’re physically present with the interviewee, right there in the room. But you’re also hearing the conversation through the ears of someone, disembodied from this moment (if audio) who cannot see what you see. So you need to interpret and add detail. “The gun barrel was like so,” he said, gesturing. In instances like that, I try to visually measure what “like so” means.
I’ll ask, “About 6 inches in diameter?” as a point of clarification. Doing that helps to bride the senses.  You also are providing context.

Straddling shared context:
If you’re interviewing a family member, there’s stuff being said that you just know. It’s hard to get outside of that shared context. 

Consider this conversation between two people who totally know what they’re talking about.
A: He said he didn’t want to take any part in that.
B: Oh that?
A nods.
B. Oh. Right, right.
A. Shrugs, shakes head. 
B. But what about the—
B. That’s not a problem. That is so a non-issue.

You, dear reader, have no idea what’s going on, but A and B share the entire context of the conversation.

As an interviewer family members, there will be some degree of shared context. You’ll be bridging between things that are already known, and things that are unknown.

Frankly, this is a hard one to step out of. I want to say, “Oh, right, right!” as a way of establishing rapport with the interviewee. See? We’re on the same team. That serves me well in the immediate moment, but it doesn’t serve the next listener who knows less than I do.

This is why some people suggest that it’s better to get more distant relatives to interview, or to skip a generation. The larger context is shared, but there’s enough distance that the interviewee needs to explain things to bring the interviewer up to speed on all the specifics.

Straddling Unwritten Rules
Each family has its own set of unwritten rules. We don’t talk about thus-and-such. We don’t talk about that event that happened back when. That is a difficult one to straddle if you are a memeber of a family who’s trying to find out information about the topic that no one will talk about. Ask. Screw up the courage and ask. (This would also be a good topic of discussion—how did you get past the unwritten rules? If you’ve done an interview and gotten past that barrier, how’d you do it?)

I don’t want to intimidate you from interviewing someone by listing these “straddlers.” (I find interviewing to be a highly rewarding, gratifying experience.) This is a list to describe what I’ve found to be involved.

You have to start somewhere. Start right here. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Any interview is good.


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 22, 2007 in • Interviewing
17 CommentsPermalink

« Previous My recording kit (and how I chose it) | My (our) StoryCorps Adventure Next »


Great article, great interview! Very timely advice for me too.

I’m not only in the market for a digital recorder but I’m also looking for interview tips, or I should say was looking, and I found both right here. Thanks!

Lee  on 01/03  at  06:17 PM

Susan, this is a great article. What’s the best way get a reprint of it to share with other people?

Diana Manchester  on 07/21  at  09:04 AM

Hi, Susan.

Love your site, which I found while looking for photos I might snag for “oral history.”  I’m going to send out an email and make a few posters advertising an oral history & genealogy fair in our little town (~ 3000 people), and am begging for permission to use the one at the top of this post.  What do you think?

Regardless of your answer, thanks.  And what an interesting family.


Raechel Wright  on 08/02  at  09:56 AM

I’m try to write a grant to purchase equipment in developing an oral history group in our school. If you can give me all the information I will need for this would be great.  I’m also wanting to know if there is a program that will type dication for a reacorder or do I have to hire someone to translate the interview for me.

essay writing service  on 10/25  at  04:58 AM

hii. This post is i like. I love my family history very inserting to the family history
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