Getting Started

Preparing questions

Work out how to ask the essential questions.

Use plain words and avoid suggesting the answers. Rather than,
“I suppose you must have had a poor and unhappy childhood?”, ask “Can you describe your childhood?”

You will need some questions that encourage precise answers:
“Where did you move to next?”

But you also need others which are open, inviting descriptions, comments, opinions:
“How did you feel about that?”
“What sort of person was she?”
“Can you describe the house you lived in?”
“Why did you decide to change jobs?”

There are some points to cover in every interview: date and place of birth, what their parents’ and their own main jobs were. And whatever the topic, it usually helps to get the interviewee talking if you begin with their earlier life: family background, grandparents, parents and brothers and sisters (including topics such as discipline), then onto childhood home (housework, chores, mealtimes), leisure (street games, gangs, sport, clubs, books, weekends, holidays, festivals), politics and religion, schooling (key teachers, friends, favourite subjects), early relationships, working life (first job, a typical working day, promotion, pranks and initiation, trade unions and professional organisations), and finally later family life (marriage, divorce, children, homes, money, neighbours, social life, hopes).

Most people find it easier to remember their life in chronological order, and it can sometimes take you two or three sessions to record a full life story.

The best interviews flow naturally and are not rehearsed. Don’t over-prepare. Don’t use a script. Tape recorded life stories should be lively, spontaneous and vivid. Allow people to be themselves.

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