December 18, 2009

9 Tips for DIY Family Interviews

Since many of you have been asking, here are some helpful hints about how to interview your family member this holiday season. It is best to do several interviews if possible, but remember that anything that you can get is better than nothing at all.

  1. The best advice I have is to wait ten (count 'em) seconds after your subject finishes talking before opening your mouth again. The natural inclination for people is to fill a silence, and if you don't, they will. This is often when I get the best stories.

  1. Ask open ended questions (not yes or no) and ask difficult or taboo questions
    in a manner that doesn't show your judgment around it. For example, if you are interviewing a Vietnam vet and want to know whether he was drafted or enlisted, try eliciting this information with a question like: "What was going on your life around the time that you went into the army." You'll get much more interesting information this way and won’t make anyone defensive. If they want to talk about politics, just listen intently. Don’t talk about yours or argue or that will be the end of your interview.

  1. Ask about the five senses. Was it cold? What colors do you remember? What about the smell? The senses trigger a whole world of stories and feelings.

  1. It's always best to ask men what they think/thought about something and ask women what they feel/felt about something. If you ask a man about his feelings, he may shut down, but if you put it in terms of his intellect, and remember rule #1, you will are likely to hear some of the feelings.

  1. Do research beforehand. If he was in WWII, learn what you can about the battles or countries he was in so that he doesn't have to give you a history lesson. You don’t want a history lesson, you want a personal history.

  1. There are plenty of good lists of questions out there (and I will publish my own, shortly) and I recommend having a list, but don’t get hung up on the list. I rarely ask more than 10% of the questions I had planned. It always goes better if you just go with the flow and let them direct the interview.

  1. Begin the interview with the date, name, place and then start by asking easy questions, like: What is your birthday? Where were you born? If you don’t know the person well, you begin by asking about other people first-- their ancestors, family, favorite uncle. This will put them at ease and help them get used to you and trust you. Save the deepest darkest secret questions for later. And I guarantee, if you build trust with them, they will tell you just about anything.

  1. Recording. Don’t ever sneak around. Always tell your subject that you will be recording. Trust is key. Put a tape recorder on a table and it will become invisible. (Video cameras are harder to ignore.) I use old-fashioned, regular-sized 60-minute tapes because they are still the most stable form of voice recording. If you use something fancier like a CD recorder or a digital recorder, always have a tape recorder as backup. I can’t tell you how many digital recordings have been lost or messed up but the tapes never fail. I order them online—no one carries them in stores anymore. And the tape recorder I use cost $50. It is great.

  1. I should note that some people may have an extremely difficult time interviewing their own parents or grandparents. I have discovered that there are several reasons for this:

    • Our own baggage/judgment. We can’t hear their story objectively and they know it. It becomes not an interview but an attempt to convince/persuade.
    • They think we know all the stories already so they leave out vitally important details.
    • They edit too much for their children. Many people are more willing to tell strangers intimate dirt on their life, but they censor it for their own children.

This is why I always suggest using a professional, or if you can’t afford it, trading relatives with a friend.

Good luck and enjoy your family!

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