Essential Tips for Interviewing family: Thou shalt not interrupt

The Interviewing Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Interrupt Do you want to interview parents or grandparents over the holidays? Here are some tips from Jens Lund – whom I met at the Oral History Association conference in Louisville this fall. As I see it, the problem for the family member interviewer is lack of experience conducting interviews. What one piece of advice would Lund, an experienced folklorist, give to the first time interviewer?

Jens (pronounced yens) Lund, from Washington state, pioneered aspects of creating the driving audio tour. Put in a cassette (this was a while ago, people) at a certain location on a road, drive and play. The tape tells you about what you’re seeing, with significant history and interviews with people from the area. There may be music from local people as well.

Here’s what he had to say:

Don’t interrupt. Give the person enough time. Don’t cut them off. Don’t hurry through your set of questions. Give a moment—a few breaths—at the end of what they say. They may be breathing or pausing before continuing with their story.

I asked him for one piece of advice. I got three good answers. Here’s more:

Know your equipment. Have it as set up as possible before coming in. Minimize fumbling and make the setup time as short as possible.

More. If a person starts to tell you a story before the interview begins (that is, before you’ve set your equipment up and press the record button), tell the person to wait. Lund says to tell them (my paraphrase) “Usually you tell it best the first time, so please wait until I’ve got everything ready, because I want to get it the first time.”

Jens Lund’s advice comes from his vast experience interviewing as a folklorist. The main purpose of the visit is to conduct an interview, so the interviewer comes in, makes small talk while setting up, and then dives right into the interview. A visit to family members is different. There is a larger amount of time spent in The Visit, of which a smaller amount of time is devoted to The Interview.

Here, for example, is a theoretical all-day visit with a 2-hour interview time.

Length of visit is much longer than actual interview time

If you are making the interview be the focus of your visit, well and good. Take his equipment/wait, wait! advice as-is. Otherwise, adapt it to your own circumstances.

But his primary piece of advice, Don’t interrupt, is harder to do well and applies in every circumstance you may find yourself in. Breathe. Let the other person finish the thought. Don’t rush.


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 19, 2009 in • Interviewing
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