Have you ever thought of conducting a life story interview with a family member? It’s probably safe to say that each of us has at least one relative who has led a seemingly exciting life, has inspired us because of their ability to overcome significant challenges and/or has actively participated in a significant historical event. You probably love to listen to their stories and may have encouraged them to write them down before it’s too late.
Maybe they’ve said they’ll get around to writing their stories one day…but they’ve been saying that for years. Or maybe they don’t see the value of their experiences the way you do. Or maybe they simply don’t like to write.
Rather than pleading – or worse yet, arguing – with them to get it done, consider a different approach. Ask them if they would allow you to record them as they tell you their story. It could be an audio recording or a video recording, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on audio recordings.
You don’t have to be a professional journalist; anyone can press the “record” button on a digital recorder or smartphone. However, here are a few tricks of the trade that will enable you to achieve the best results possible.
Select Your Equipment
If you already possess a recording device, test it out prior to the interview to make sure it’s still working properly. If you need to purchase a device, you have many options to choose from, based on your needs, budget and brand loyalty.
Personally, I recommend using a digital recorder rather than a smartphone. Depending on your phone, it may limit the length of your recordings, the sound quality might not be ideal, it might not be compatible with external microphones and incoming phone calls and social media alerts might disrupt the recording.
The minimum equipment that you’ll need is a digital recorder and a lapel microphone. I also highly recommend an additional backup device; nothing would be worse than relying on one device and then forgetting to press “record” or experiencing an undetected technical malfunction. As backup, I go old school and use a microcassette recorder and an inexpensive table microphone.
Before the Interview
Schedule the meeting (preferably a series of meetings) at a time that’s most convenient and supportive for your family member. What time of day are they most alert and energetic? What is their typical calendar of events for the week? Evenings after dinner might be convenient for you, but horrible for them. And dropping by unexpectedly when they’re preparing to head out for an appointment or social activity will make them less than receptive to answering your questions.
A few days prior to the interview, provide them with a list of topics you would like to discuss. This allows them time to organize their thoughts on those topics and might trigger more discussion points to be added to the list.
Setting Up for the Interview
Establish a quiet environment. Turn off any background noise such as televisions, radios and grandfather clock and mantle clock chimes. Make sure all phone ringers are turned off or set to vibrate mode. Silence all smartphone alert sounds. Place pets (especially dogs and birds) in another room. Close windows to limit the sounds of cars driving by, sirens, or mowers/leaf blowers. Notify others who live in the home that you will be conducting an interview and to avoid interrupting you and the loved one unless it’s an emergency.
Select a room that provides a comfortable chair for your loved one to sit in during the interview, a table for you to set up your equipment and contains carpeting, rugs and/or curtains. The latter helps to avoid an echo in the recordings.
Attach the lapel microphone on your loved one’s shirt and plug it into your digital recorder. Avoid placing the microphone where he or she might bump it through frequent hand gestures; physical contact with the microphone causes loud noise on the recording and can also bump the microphone off the shirt.
Place the table microphone equidistant from you and your loved one to capture both of your voices and connect the microphone to your second recorder.
Turn on both recorders.
Be sure to have extra batteries on hand for both recorders AND the mic (it’s much more convenient to go wireless and not have to worry about finding electrical outlets near your ideal interview area). If using a cassette recorder as backup, have an extra cassette tape unwrapped and ready to insert if necessary.
Turn the lapel mic on – you usually need to slide a small switch.
Test the equipment. You should have tested your equipment at home first but it’s equally important to do a quick sound check at the beginning of each interview to make sure everything’s working properly.
Make sure you have a watch or smartphone in front of you to keep track of time.
Provide your loved one and yourself with water. It’s easy to become parched when talking at great length and the water is handy in case of a coughing spell.
Have your questions in front of you and paper and pen handy to take notes during the interview. If possible, avoid typing your notes as the sound of you typing on your keyboard will be picked up on the recording.
During the Interview
Begin by stating your first and last name, the date, who you’re with (e.g., Aunt Jane Doe), where you’re at (e.g., her home in city, state) and that you’re going to be asking Aunt Jane questions about her life.
Expect the beginning of the interview to be a little uncomfortable and awkward. For your loved one, it can be unnerving to have a microphone pinned to their shirt and see a microphone sitting in front of them on a table. For you as interviewer, you may be worrying about the logistics of the interview itself. Relax and encourage your loved one to sit back and look at you or anywhere but the equipment. After about the first five or ten minutes, you’ll both forget about the technical side of things and will enjoy your conversation.
Ask a question and sit back and wait. Your loved one may want to think how to best phrase an answer so let them. Don’t let silence unsettle you.
Make frequent eye contact; it lets them know that you’re actively listening. If you’re constantly looking at your notes or fiddling with your equipment, they may feel that you’re not truly paying attention to what they’re saying.
Allow your loved one to direct the conversation. After you’ve asked a question, let them go off on related tangents. You may be surprised to learn new stories and insights; things that you would never have known to ask about.
If you have to pause the recording for any reason (a coughing spell, an unexpected visitor, etc.), be sure to press the “record” button again once the conversation resumes!
If your loved one needs to leave the room for any reason, be sure to disconnect their lapel mic before they take a step away. Otherwise, they may stretch the cord or worse yet, your recorder could be yanked off the table.
Limit the interview to 1-2 hours. Longer than two hours is mentally draining for all involved. Pay attention to your loved one’s energy levels, attention span and overall mindset throughout the interview and stop whenever necessary.
Avoid topics they do not wish to talk about. Your loved one should not be pressured into answering a question that causes them distress, anger or fear. If they become agitated or show signs of mental distress, you should stop the interview immediately. If the distress is severe, attempt to calm them and stay with them until another family member can arrive. Note that this rarely happens, but it’s important information to know, just in case.
Conclude the interview by stating into the microphone that the interview is ending and repeat who conducted the interview, the name of the person being interviewed and the date. Mention if a follow-up interview will be conducted on another day.
Press the “stop” buttons and turn everything off.
After the Interview
Thank your loved one and schedule the next meeting, if applicable.
Save the recordings and label them with the date, your loved one’s name, and an identifying description such as “Life Story Interview #1.”
Don’t provide your loved one with a copy of the recording until after all interviews have been conducted. Many people don’t like the sound of their voices on a recording and if they’re overly self-conscious, they may decide to not do any more interviews after hearing the first one.
These are all things that I’ve been taught and/or learned through trial and error. I wish you every success with your family interviews!
Have you conducted interviews in the past? Share your experiences and additional tips in the comments!