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7 Steps to a Successful Oral History

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StoryCorps, the non-profit organization that facilitates the ability to record, share and preserve the story of our lives is celebrating its 10th anniversary. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects and has inspired millions of people to feel more connected both to their loved ones and to strangers. Everyone has an interesting story to tell!

Tribute shares StoryCorps’ values in the importance of capturing people’s character, stories, humor, etc. It is incredibly rewarding to create lasting legacies with books and video tributes, but sometimes a simple audio recording is all you need.

Here are 7 tips for a successful oral history interview:

  • Provide context: Before you start the interview, introduce yourself, the interviewee and provide the date, location and other essentials so in 100 years, the audience will know the context.
  • Don’t stop and start: Keep the recording device or video camera on throughout the interview (unless asked to turn it off). You often get the best answers from the “outtakes.”
  • Don’t interrupt: Try not to interrupt the interviewee and let them take the discussion where they want. Sometimes this can lead to fascinating discoveries. Also, don’t be afraid of pauses. Sometimes it takes a few moments to conjure up memories so allow a few moments of silence in between questions to be sure your interviewee has completed his or her thought.
  •  Follow-up: Use follow questions to invite more information on interesting subjects, such as, “When did that happen?” “Can you give me an example of this happening?” “How did you feel about that?”
  • Stay Engaged: The interviewee feels more comfortable knowing you are paying attention rather than looking at your notes or recording device.
  • Get personal: Personal questions about first love, divorce, embarrassing moments, etc. are hard to ask but they often elicit some of the best stories you’ve never heard.
  • Accept no for an answer: If you ask something that your interviewee doesn’t want to answer, don’t push it. If you want to try asking the controversial questions, do it towards the end of the interview.

Make sure the share the recording with your family and friends! It is a gift they will treasure and sharing will surely amplify the legacy of your loved one.

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