Oral history guide

Page 4 – The interview

The interview

The best oral history interviews are the result of careful planning, thorough research, familiarity with your equipment and good rapport with your interviewee.

Before you go out to record an interview

  • Make sure you have all the equipment you need.
  • Make sure that everything is in good working order.
  • Check that you know how to operate all your equipment properly.
  • Check to see that you have copies of the recording agreement form, your interview questions and any items that you have borrowed from your interviewee and must return.
  • Do a short practice interview with a friend or family member to get used to recording and asking questions.

At the interview

  • Make a sound check. Record your voice and that of your interviewee to make sure that both of you can be heard. It does not matter what you record for the sound check, as you do not need to retain this file once you have finished. A useful question is 'What did you have for breakfast?' If you note significant sounds, which cannot be prevented such as a crackling fire, explain the noise at the beginning of the recording. For example, 'We are sitting by a crackling fire with a cat purring!' 
  • Play the test recording back to check, listening and watching the sound meter. Make any necessary adjustments to the microphone or recording volume control.
  • Record a track identification at the beginning of each take. This is a typical tape identification: This is an interview with John Clarke, recorded on the first of May 2005 at his home in Te Anau. The interviewer is (your name) and this is track (x).
  • You should spell any person's or place names (i.e., say – Clarke, spelt C–L–A–R–K–E, Te Anau spelt T–E new word A–N–A–U). This is particularly important if the interview is to be deposited in an archive.
  • The interview is not a conversation. You are there to find out information. Once you have asked a question, keep quiet. (You are not the star of the show!) Smile and nod to show encouragement and interest. Try not to say yes or make encouraging noises, and don't wriggle about or shuffle your papers.
  • Begin the interview with straightforward questions that your interviewee will have no difficulty answering. Ask for their full name and date of birth; ask about their mother and father and their names and occupations.
  • Throughout the interview the questions that will give you the best information are those that start 'How ...', 'Who ...', 'Why ...', 'What ...', 'Where ...' or 'When ...'.
  • Ask specific questions to get specific answers, and ask open-ended ones to get longer, more detailed answers.
  • Avoid questions where your interviewee only has to answer yes or no. Say, for example, 'What were your living conditions like?' rather than 'Did you have cramped living conditions?'
  • Don't tell them the answer to a question: 'So you milked the cows by hand?' Allow them to explain how they did things.
  • Ask open-ended questions if you want description or comment: 'What can you remember of the trip over to Egypt?' or 'Can you tell me more about what Cairo was like?'
  • Don't ask more than one question at a time.
  • Try to make your questions as clear as possible. If your interviewee does not understand, repeat the question and/or rephrase it.
  • Do not fill every pause they take. Most people will need to think about answers, especially if they are remembering things that happened long ago.
  • Make sure that your interviewee has finished answering before you ask the next question.
  • Don't worry if you seem to be straying from your prepared questions as long as the information you are hearing is relevant.
  • Don't expect people to remember dates. Most won't. For example ask, 'How old were you then?' or 'Was that before or after you left school?' If you have done your background research well enough, the answer should allow you to pinpoint the year.
  • Aim to get interviewees to spell out measurements; 'It was about this wide' will mean nothing to a listener. Try to get the interviewee to give a verbal estimate of size: 'Oh, about a metre', or give it yourself: 'Is that about a metre?'
  • While you are recording, try not to turn off the recorder. You will obviously not want to keep it running if you are interrupted by something such as a telephone call, but leave it running during pauses while people think.
  • These days a good recording will be a large file, so pause every 30 minutes or so to prevent file size becoming unwieldy. Remember to identify each new track.
  • At the end of an interview, it is helpful to say thank you while still recording so that listeners know the interview has finished.
  • At the end of the interview, ask your interviewee to sign the agreement form (pdf, 57KB).
  • Offer the interviewee a copy of the interview.
How to cite this page

'The interview', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/the-interview-a-guide-to-recording-oral-history, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2022