Hot Chocolate & Genealogy
Hot Chocolate & Genealogy

Interview Family over the Holidays!

There's no better time than the holidays to get family together! And that's the perfect time to interview family.

Oral history is the most precious legacy we have, and yet it is largely ignored. These days technology and know-how abound so it is time to record family stories, traditions and life experiences.

You don't have to be a professional reporter or journalist to conduct interviews. Here are some interview tips to make it a pleasant experience for all.

Before the Interview

  • Prepare a questionnaire for your relative(s) to fill out so you understand what is important to them and what they are willing to discuss.
  • Create a series of questions and give it to your subject ahead of time to review. Remind them that they don't have to answer each question specifically; it is just to give them an idea of subject matter so they may have any photos, stories or dates ready.
  • Book a time in advance. For example, tell great-Aunt Bertha that you would like to talk with her for an hour or so before the rest of the family arrives.
  • Seek permission to tape the interview and come prepared with the appropriate equipment.

During the Interview

  • Set up any equipment, pour each of you a glass of water and be ready to start on time.
  • Ask one question at a time and allow your subject to answer. Begin questions with Who, What, Where, When or Why and keep them quite short and general in scope. Silence is golden so don't worry about long pauses on a tape.
  • Listen. Listen with your eyes, ears, hands and heart. Listen for facts and feelings.
  • Establish correct spelling of names and locations and if possible, try to pinpoint dates or timeframes.
  • Let your subject speak! Don't finish sentences, don't interrupt, and avoid correcting them during the initial interview.
  • Accentuate the anecdotes. Get descriptions of people and places and let them develop into stories of their own.
  • When you are nearing conclusion, let the subject know and invite them to add any last comments. Always finish on a positive note.

Following the holidays, send a thank you note with a transcript of the conversation. Let the person know where you plan to take the project from here.


This article appeared in the November 1997 issue of Hot Chocolate.

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