Preparing Mama to be an Interviewer

Here's Mom, standing in front of an old California stagecoach stop not far from Temecula, California. (from a recent road trip) What happens the person who’s usually the interviewee borrows your fancy digital recorder and becomes the interviewer? What happens when your Mom goes across the country and will see someone you’ve been wanting to interview for, like forever? Do you say, Okay Mom, please ask these questions. Oh, and would you record it? How do you make using the recorder as simple as possible? Will it work out?

The other week, my Mom went from West Coast to East Coast to attend her 60th high school reunion. I loaned her my easiest-to-use recorder with some very basic instruction. And hoped for the best.

Mount Pleasant High School Postcard (sent 1950, the same year Mom graduated).

Background: The stories I want to hear

Main entrance to General Electric's largest plant and its general offices. My gradmother worked for the General Electric Company twice—in the 1920s before her children were born, and again from 1941 until she retired in 1966. The person I’ve wanted to interview—a woman whose initials are NF—was mentored by my grandmother.  They both worked in an industry where women professionals were A Rare Thing.

Here’s something else that’s important: Grandma lived on the other side of the country.

I am back east at Grandma and Grandpa's house. In the snow (wow!) It's 1963; I am 3 and a half years old. (Grandma died 4 years later) I only have a few memory snapshots of her, from a visit East when I was a pre-schooler, and from a visit Grandma took west when my younger brother was born (I was 5?).

Grandma died a few months before I turned 8. Other than those few mental snapshots, everything I know about her is second-hand.

I want to hear stories of that time. I want to know a bit more what my grandmother was like as a professional. I’ve wanted to interview NF forever. (Well, it seems like forever. I noted it at the beginning of 2006.)

A few days before Mom left on her trip, I learned that she and her brother would be staying at NF’s house.

Wow. Say it backwards: Wow.

Aerial view of the General Electric Research Laboratory, Schenectady, New York. The Laboratory was established in 1900 and moved to this site in 1950. I called Mom, asked, “May I get my recorder to you so you can maybe interview NF when you’re there?” Mom said “Yes.” (I love my mother!)

Great! How will I make it so that my Mom, who’s not adept in the ways of digital gadgets, can use my recorder? Although Mom grew up in a household headed by two engineers, she’s not the type to tinker with gadgets. She’s computer averse. (Plus, she has five children to do her digital bidding for her.)

Over the next day and some, I created a little how-to guide for her to use my Marantz PMD 620 portable recorder.

The beauty of that recorder is that it uses one-button recording. Power it up, press the Record button. Boom! You are now now recording. It’s that simple. (I have lost important conversations by using recorders that require you to press the record button twice—first time to get ready to record, then again to actually START recording. No way would I put a press-twice recorder into my Mom’s hands.)

Just the facts essentials, ma’am

I pondered what is the minimum need-to-know info for using the recorder.

  • How to power it on.
  • How to start recording
  • and stop recording.
  • How to change the memory card (if you fill up the 4GB memory card inside—over 6 hours’ recording capacity).
  • How to use headphones to listen to the sound quality.

Page 1 of the guide I made for my Mom, so she'd know how to use my Marantz PMD 620 portable digital recorder I illustrated everything (except headphones—I’d show her that in person). Large color photos. Very very basic text. What to do, and what results look like. 

A little tripod, a little camera, a little time in Photoshop and InDesign (photo editing and page layout software), and I printed out the guide. You see my guide here—click to enlarge the photos. That’s the advantage of having a daughter with a background in graphic design and instructional tech writing: Personalized production documentation for an audience of one!*

Then I wrote a letter to NF introducing myself, for Mom to take along. Also a letter to my uncle (I’ve owed him a letter since, well, June.) The other thing I included was a list of questions for Mom to ask.

Learning New Stuff: Show and Try

Page 2 of the Marantz PMD 620 guide for Mom. Hey Mom, here's how to power it up! I drove an hour away to Mom’s, taking the kit with the recorder and accessories, the printed guide, and the letters.

I was only able to take Mom through the first two of the three steps of Learning Something New:

  1. Watch someone else do it
  2. Do it yourself while someone coaches you
  3. Try it on your own

It’s risky to do steps 1 and 2 only, because Mom would be doing Step 3 when it mattered the most. No opportunity for mistakes.

I knew this whole undertaking was a long shot. Many things could go wrong.

Page 3: Hey Mom, here's how you start recording and stop recording on the Marantz PMD 620! One notable moment. I said, “Mom, plug the headphones into here where it says PHONES, and listen as we’re recording this test.”

“Oh!” she said. Surprised.

Yes, it’s a good idea to listen to the recorder to see how it works. It’s a good idea to see what happens when you tap the table and handle the recorder itself, and hear it live. When you look at it from the outside, you don’t know what it’s picking up. But when you listen in the headphones, you get “inside” the recorder and hear what it’s hearing.

Greater living through lowered expectations

I showed her my list of questions and said, “Don’t feel as though you need to read questions off this piece of paper. I wrote these out so you’d know the kind of things I’m looking for.”

And then, once the recorder was put in her suitcase, we went to the store and bought her a digital camera. Hooray! A digital camera. And yet, oh dear. Two brand new digital gadgets at the same time. My Mom is a very smart person, but techno-gadgets just aren’t her thing. That’s a steep all-at-once learning curve. Plus, when she gets there, the talking and visiting is more important.

Page 4: In case you need to replace the one memory card in the Marantz PMD 620 with the other one I supplied. I spent the week with fingers crossed.

A couple of days ago, I picked Mom up from the airport. While driving from the airport, she told me about her trip, the visit with her brother, with NF, with her high school classmates, with my brother, who lives on the east coast.

She told me about the wonderful time she had. She recounted an oh-so-brief story that NF told her about Grandma. Oh, excellent! I’ll be able to hear it, too.

I asked her how the recording went, and she said, “Oh, it’s going to be all over the place. The thing worked and then it didn’t work.” But she had such a good visit.

Once back at her home, I showed her how to get the photos off her camera. Uploaded them to a photo service so she could get a few prints. Listened a bit to each recording on the Marantz PMD 620—just to identify the speakers.

I’ve since I listened to the recording that showed such promise (in terms of megabytes). Lots of chit chat about this and that, but it just quit, mid-sentence. Just as the conversation worked its way from this-and-that to Grandmother’s sisters.

Ah well.

The questions I have—I still have them. But thanks to this visit, there’s a better chance that I’ll be able to ask the questions and hear the stories about my grandmother. 

Lessons Learned

It’s not easy to transfer your own need-to-know obsession to someone else. No matter how well you prepare, your wishes and preparation probably won’t take. Motive is important.

There is no substitute for practice using a new gadget before you need to use it live. Allow yourself plenty of time beforehand to do a throwaway recording session. If you rely on someone else to get things set up for you (as Mom did for me), the “Expert” needs to stay hands off, with no talking while the “Learner” tries it out. And probably struggles some.

Was it worth it for me to go to all the trouble for a less-than-stellar result? Absolutely. Abso-freaking-lutely.

UPDATE: If you are interested in this recorder, you can get it at [affiliate link] Marantz PMD620 Handheld SD MP3/WAV Recorder

[Disclosure: No person has paid me to write about this product. The unit I have (and loaned to Mom) was purchased by my significant other.]

*Okay, okay, while I was making this, I thought, Hey! quick eBook guide for download. Interested? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 29, 2010 in • AudioAudio: HardwareHow-ToPersonal
3 CommentsPermalink

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Wow your posts are soooooo incredibly detailed and thorough & helpful. We get these types of questions all the time for people not knowing how to start. You shold let us repost soome of these (as you) on the site so even more people can read them (seriously!) I’ll do it for you if you approve. Such great info.

antje wilsch  on 09/29  at  02:51 PM

Antje, let’s talk about this via email. Still wanna do the “whether online or local” discussion I mentioned a long time ago. Rendered all the more interesting since then by cable-access to internet (much faster) and, as of the last day, a very sick computer (which is All Backed Up). So even tho I say “let’s talk” I’ll make progress slowly until I figure out why my MacPro ails so.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 09/30  at  11:16 AM

Thank you so much for sharing this story with everyone.  You explain so many things that many people who are into genealogy and oral history take for granted.  Hopefully you have given many people something to think about.

Maureen West  on 10/06  at  03:50 PM

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