You are planning to start asking to your relatives about the stories of your family, but you have never conducted interviews. I wrote this short guide to introduce you to the best practices of interviewing, so that you will avoid the most common mistakes!
1)Be prepared for the interview
Get ready for the interview in advance: prepare a recorder, and make sure it works (but most importantly that you know how to use it!!). Bring with you paper and pen just in case. Don’t trust your memory! Write down ideas, comments and thoughts you have during the interview, otherwise you will forget them. Prepare the questions that you want to ask in advance and give yourself enough time for the interview…you don’t want to rush to the end, and often times you will end up talking for hours without even noticing. Listening to the stories of your family can be so fascinating that you will end up skipping meals because of them. Personal experience!
2)Prepare the interviewee for the interview
Although the interviewee will probably be somebody that you already know, there are some good practices that you should respect all the time regardless of how close you are to the persons you are interviewing. Make sure that they have time and they are in the right state of mind to be interviewed. Schedule the interview in advance and make sure they are happy to help you and have time to do it. A happy interviewee means a good interview. Choose a good place where the interviewee is comfortable, his or her house will probably be the best (This especially applies for elderly people) and bring something to eat together.
Explain what you would like to know and tell the interviewee that he is free to interrupt the interview at any time. Ask him if you can record or take notes. The recorder could “scare” the person you are interviewing, so you should make sure to make him comfortable with recording. Promise him not to share anything that could be said confidentially or that could hurt somebody. You are not hunting for a journalist scoop…you are writing the history of your family! So stop the recorder if necessary, and just take notes or listen!
The key in the interview is to listen. Ask questions that you want to be answered, but listen to what the interviewee has to
say. Remember that the questions you prepared are just a guideline; you might discover new facts and decide to ask things that were not planned. The interview is a nice talk: take brakes, eat, and drink. Don’t make it look like a police questioning! If you let the interviewee talk you will discover stories you never imagined, and people are really eager to talk with somebody that listens!
Be careful with your questions and be mindful of delicate questions you might ask. Sometimes it is better to avoid certain topics and let your relative choose if he spontaneously wants to talk about it or not. Don’t force questions that the interviewee might not be comfortable with and always be mindful of the other person’s emotions.
5)Concluding the interview
Thank your interviewee for his stories and time, and promise him a copy of your work once you have completed it. This will make him happy and eager to contribute again in case you need. During the interview you probably had many ideas on how to continue your research and other questions to ask. If you have not forgotten them yet, write them down immediately, you’ll be amazed how fast things get out of your mind! If you recorded the interview, try to transcribe it as soon as possible (either entirely or just the parts you are interested in). In case you took notes, make sure to write them clearly and make a summary of them immediately.
If you want to read more about conducting interviews, there is plenty of material on the web. However, the articles you will find are often academic and quite boring! This is an article with some tips that you can utilise also in conducting interviews you’re your relatives: