The art and technique of eliciting stories from others

StoryCorp’s Question Generator

Storycorps has an online tool to generate questions for an interview. “You’ll start by writing your own questions, then we’ll suggest questions that, in our experience, have led to great interviews.” I didn’t try this for my interview with my Mom yesterday (just over 3 hours in two sessions. Which is a lot!). But maybe I will for a future interview. By the way, the StoryCorps web site doesn’t keep the questions; it emails them to you. You may also print them off of the web site. They come in two forms: Remembering someone (i.e., Mom, tell me about your Mom, my Grandma), and questions to elicit descriptions about his/her own life.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 15, 2006 in • Do it: YourselfInterviewing
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Maps and Family History (book review)

One of my favorite blogs, The Map Room, reviews Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide To Using Maps And Geography. Jonathan Crowe, The Map Room’s author, notes the book’s “assertion that place is central to genealogical research”– you gotta know where to look to find the good stuff, and maps are a genealogist’s friend.

What intrigues me about maps and family history is a slightly different use for them—a memory trigger. The common wisdom for conducting your oral history includes the helpful suggestion, “Use photographs and documents to help trigger the narrator’s memory to describe past events or locations.” Photos are, of course, so freakin’ obvious… First as an identification of who’s in the picture—and how they’re related, and where the picture was taken. And second, as a trigger to the significance of the persons, place, and that time. “Here’s Old Uncle Jake who used to visit us every few years. Let me tell you what he used to say when he’d come to visit us…” or somesuch. But the “and ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 11, 2006 in • BooksInterviewing
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Quotes from Grobel’s The Art of the Interview

In an earlier post, I compared two books both titled The Art of the Interview, based on their Amazon reviews. I said that I’d prefer Perlich’s book to Lawrence Grobel’s. But Grobel’s [The Art of the Interview: Lessons from A Master of the Craft] was recently published, so it’s been easier to get ahold of. I’m happy to report that it’s a page turner. I’m still digesting some parts of it, especially the differences between the magazine interviewer for print and my interest in interviewing, an interview with a family member for history’s sake, for “getting the record.” But Grobel has some lovely metaphors about interviews which I’ll quote here.

After recounting an interview with a friend that ended the friendship (it began with highly personal, confrontative questions), Grobel says,

Why tell the story then? Because it illustrates what an interview is not, and that is, it is not just a series of tough, point-blank questions. An interview is more like a massage: You cover the entire body, you find knots and work those out. It’s like a dance, where you lead and your subject hopefully follows (And, at times, the subject leads, and you follow until you can regain control). [p29]

In the context of drawing out someone who’s unwilling to talk about himself:

Interviewing is the art of capturing and shaping smoke; it’s holding up a ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 25, 2006 in • Interviewing
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The Art of the Interview (x2)

An intriguing-looking book: The Art of the Interview. Actually there are two books of that title (different subtitles). The Art of the Interview: A Step by Step Guide to Insightful Interviewing by Martin Perlich, and The Art of the Interview : Lessons from a Master of the Craft, by Lawrence Grobel. Even though I found the book(s) by a reference to Grobel’s (Amazon lists Perlich’s book on Grobel’s book page), I like the Amazon reviews for Perlich’s better. Both authors are journalists, and both books claim to give how-to advice, Both tell stories of interviews conducted.

Perlich’s reviewers spoke of his book in more glowing terms. But they also offered intriguing nuggets of their own…From a guy who hired him way back, (“Local boy makes good”).... to the tension between structure and formlessness to artistic creation that is the interview itself…

The author, Martin Perlich presents the interviewer begining with a blank sheet of paper or glob of clay and it is his/hers task to create the Mona Lisa or drop the ball, so to speak. The end product becomes a work or art; hence the title. The book gives some very practical advise on how to prepare for and conduct a good interview. the elevation of the ordinary and everyday, and how interviewing ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 22, 2006 in • Interviewing
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Post-disaster interviewing

The Louisiana Folklife Program has a page, In the wake of the hurricanes, devoted to “collecting our stories and preserving our culture.” There are some excellent resources on that page for interviewing Hurricane Katrina survivors and responders. Why might this be of interest to someone who is not from the Gulf area? (I’ve been thinking about interview questions today). Disasters happen. People are affected—both the survivors and those who respond. These are a good starting place to elicit details about a major disaster experience. And there are a huge number of people affected by Katrina and Rita, too. Too– the Gulf diaspora is so widespread that there may be survivors and responders close by.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 10, 2006 in • InterviewingOral History Projects
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The Remembering Site

The Remembering Site —Sharing our collective memories— is a website where you can join, and be presented with a host of questions to answer. It’s like writing a personal memoir, in small stages. The site is primarily devoted to text and writing recollections. But the nonprofit foundation offers audio recording services, too. One co-founder, DG Fulford (together with her brother Bob Greene) wrote a book To Our Chidren’s Children, an excellent book of questions to spark memory and recollection.

You sign up for the site, pay $10, and are guided to answer as many or as few of the myriad questions presented. Here are a few from the page of sample questions (that’s 4 of 32; go the page for all of ‘em). I like them for the way that they pull for specifics and sensory details, but if you’re going to be asking questions in a conversation, I wouldn’t ask multiple-point questions:

Did your grandparents live nearby? How often did you visit their homes? Did the house have a special cooking smell? Onions? Cookies? What did their couch feel like? How big was the kitchen?

Do you remember “getting” a concept in school? Cursive writing, maybe? Do you remember the moment when you first ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 09, 2006 in • InterviewingLinksPersonal History
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Dakota Memories Oral History Project

North Dakota State University Oral History Project. Germans from Russia. Nice in that there are documents like scope and permissions form all for the viewing from the web site.

Lots of cool stuff found in the pop-up menus on the site, including the Inteview Topic Checklist (which is a nifty intake form, thanks to that handy-dandy world wide web!) The items that’re are what we’ll be talking about, please check off additionally listed topics you’d feel comfortable and/or interested in discussing) and biography form. It’s a good resource to think about your interviews and prep.

Of course, since it’s for a university-related project, there is a release form. Because this is going to become a resource used by scholars in perpetuity, as curated by the university. So the interviewee (narrator) says, Yes, you have my permission to make use of the interview. But an ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 09, 2005 in • InterviewingOral History Projects
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Twins talk in the StoryCorps booth

Recordnet, California’s Central Valley paper, profiles Stockton twins (currently in Seattle) as they swapped stories about their father in the StoryCorps booth.

In a 40-minute session in StoryCorps’ MobileBooth, a recording studio constructed inside a silver Airstream trailer, the Canote twins, 54, swapped tales of their father, Bob Canote, who died last year at 81 in Saratoga. The oldest of five children, Bob became a banker after he completed his World War II service in Italy.

A profile of local people and a discussion of the StoryCorps project (which, thus far, hasn’t been getting much coverage on this site, though I’ve been following it quite closely. And wondering when and if they’re going to come to the L.A. area. The West Coast tour stops in San Francisco, and that bums me out.

Here’s their how-to for doing it yourself:

If you want ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on October 20, 2005 in • InterviewingOral history in the newsOral History Projects
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Interviewing tips from a psychologist

Detroit Free Press: Louise Reed Ritchie had studied journalism. But she learned far more about the art of interviewing when she trained to be a clinical psychologist. She discusses tips for interviewing, directing her advice to journalists, but using her clinical background.

Before studying clinical psychology, I thought I knew everything about interviewing that a journalist needed to know. Through coursework and experience as a reporter at AP and The Washington Post, I’d learned to get usable quotes from almost anyone, from grieving parents to recalcitrant bureaucrats.

But while working on my doctorate in clinical psychology, I learned how little journalists know about interviewing. Journalists learn to get accurate quotes on deadline. Psychologists learn to get the measure of a soul in 50 minutes.

Training provides the difference.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on August 26, 2005 in • Interviewing
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Listening ear

The State, South Carolina (03/15/2005) Collecting Oral Histories

The most effective tool in collecting an oral history, besides a working tape recorder, is a listening ear, according to Converse College history professor Melissa Walker.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 15, 2005 in • Do it: YourselfInterviewing
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Transom Tools: SHOUT OUT - A Kid’s Guide to Recording Stories

This page on is a guide (for kids) on how to collect stories. It’s offered as a downloadable PDF, too.

Collecting stories is easier than you think. Find a park bench or front porch. Invite your grandmother, your friend, or coach to join you. And listen.

That’s the key. In the listening, you will hear stories that people often keep to themselves - that we don’t slow down enough to hear. These stories can be truer and more important than many things we hear on radio, see on TV or read in the newspaper.

This booklet will help you gather those stories. It is an introduction to spoken history.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 14, 2005 in • Do it: YourselfInterviewing
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The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide

View as web pages or download entire pdf. A guide by Marjorie Hunt published and made freely available by the Smithsonian Institution.

From the introduction:

We hope that the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide inspires you to turn to members of your own family and community as key sources of history, culture, and tradition. But where does one start? This booklet presents some guidelines Smithsonian folklorists have developed over the years for collecting folklife and oral history from family and community members. It features a general guide to conducting an interview, as well as a sample list of questions that may be adapted to your own needs and circumstances. The booklet concludes with a few examples of ways to preserve and present your findings, a selection of further readings, a glossary ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 08, 2004 in • Interviewing
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