Now that you have planned your project, thought about questions and learnt how to use your equipment, the next step is the most exciting: the interviewing itself. Many people think that interviewing is simply a recorded chat. However an interview is not a normal conversation. Much depends on the rapport between you and the interviewee and the degree to which they are willing to put their trust in you. You must consider how best to get a good recording in unfamiliar surroundings. Most importantly, you should ensure you get your interviewee’s permission before recording anything.

Here are a few tips about how to approach someone you would like to interview and how to conduct the interview itself.

Approaching an interviewee

personal contact is best

The best way to approach someone you want to interview is by personal contact, rather than by letter, and often the initial contact will be by telephone. This gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself, explain your project and outline the sort of topics you might cover in your conversation. You should have with you an information sheet about your project which sets out who you are, what the project’s about and how the person can be involved. This can also explain what you will do with their recording and whether it will be archived. 

The person you have approached may be uncertain: they might say they have nothing interesting to say. So you sometimes have to do a bit of persuading. The key is to talk in terms of “a chat about the past” or a “story of your life” rather than an “interview” which can sound forbidding!When you speak to them get some background information and decide where the interview should take the place. The person’s own home is by far the best as they will be much more relaxed. A one-to-one interview is best. Privacy encourages an atmosphere of trust and honesty. A third person present, even a close partner, can inhibit and influence free discussion.

Before you start an interview you need to obtain a signed and dated participation agreement from each individual confirming that they understand how they will take part in your project, and how their personal data will be stored and used, with information about your data protection and privacy policies. You can find more information about this in our section on Data Protection.

Doing the interview

what to do and what not to do

Be reassuring

Remember that you are their guest, and if they are elderly, that you may be the first person they have spoken to for several days. They will be as nervous and apprehensive as you are, so it is essential to be cordial and patient.

Choose a quiet place

Try to pick a room which is not on a busy road. If you can, switch off radios and televisions, which can sometimes make it difficult to hear what someone is saying. Switch off all mobile phones.

Get close

Sit side-by-side and if you are using a clip-on microphone, put it about nine inches from the person’s mouth. With a hand-held microphone place it as near as possible but not on the same surface as the recorder, nor on a hard surface which gives poor sound quality. Generally, the closer the microphone the better the results.

Keep your questions short and clear

  • Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask too many questions. Your aim is to get them to talk, not to talk yourself. 
  • Always wait for a pause before you ask the next question. Listen carefully and maintain good eye contact.
  • Respond positively but noiselessly: body language like nodding and smiling is much better than the “ers” and “ums” and “reallys” that are part of normal conversation.
  • Be relaxed, unhurried and sympathetic.
  • Don’t contradict and don’t get into heated debate.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask more questions, but don’t jump from one subject to another too abruptly. 
  • As well as a mere descriptive retelling of events, try to explore motives and feelings with questions like “Why?” and “How did you feel?”.

Getting behind stereotype and generalisation is one of the most challenging aspects of interviewing people. But remember to be sensitive and always respect confidences.

Interview with John Savage, music journalist
Rooms full of soft furnishings are good places to record interviews. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Kelly)
A spoof bad interview – can you spot what they’re doing wrong? (Sound clip courtesy of East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Want to learn more?

Try our introduction to oral history course. Discounts for members.
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