Oral history interviewing

One of the basic techniques or processess of oral history is the interview.

How do we do it well so that we end up with fascinating, inciteful, rich oral histories?

What follows is an approach to the oral history interview informed by the ancient oral traditions and culture of storytelling.

Basic philosophy

1) Most, if not all, people really do want to have their stories listened to.

If they haven't done it before it's likely because:

no one has been interested enough to ask
it hasn't felt safe enough
they have been part of a group norm or code that discouraged disclosure and sharing
or if they did try to tell their stories before it wasn't a good experience.

2) Most people want their stories and experiences to be valued, respected and acknowledged

by their own immediate community
by the wider community.

When will interviewees enjoy the interview experience most?

When will interviewees recommend that their contacts be interviewed as well?

When will interviewees be most likely to be happy about publishing of their stories?

How do we value, respect and acknowledge stories and storytellers?

listening with interest and respect
encouraging tellers to tell their story their way in their own voice
keeping to the spirit of the gift of the story

Listening like a storyteller

Storytellers learn to listen like fascinated audiences.

We learn to listen like 'we are in the story'.

Most people have had the opportunity to notice a child 'totally absorbed in a story'.

What do they look like?

like they are right there living every moment of the story and are totally open to hearing more story.

What happens when the storyteller notices this?

He or she is really pleased and wants to keep the listeners right in that space and will go to quite a bit of trouble to tell his or her story well.

How can you encourage your Oral History interviewee to keep on wanting to tell their story well?

look interested
make interested sounds or gestures that take the place of sounds (smiles, nods, hand movements)
ask questions as if you are really interested
be 'open' to all possible stories

How do you get to be 'open'?

remember what it was like to be a child discovering new things for the first time and practice doing that

while listening pretend that you are hearing this story for the very first time and it is unique

like the young child enjoying the story, suspend your disbelief. Listen as if what you are hearing is 'completely true' while at the same time keep in relaxed reserve the possibility that it might not be

relax, breathe, remember that usually, if someone has agreed to be interviewed, they have weighed up the consequences in their mind, have decided that they trust you and want to tell their story

remember that an interviewee who is genuinely telling you a story from their life experience will benefit from the experience and the world will be better for the trouble both you and your storyteller takes

sometimes oral histories have significant lasting benefits to whole countries even sometimes to the whole world

Narrative Structure

Storytellers know all about narrative structure - 'character, setting, problem, resolution'. This is the storytellers 'stock in trade' the 'seven herbs and spices' that makes storytelling and interesting stories possible.

We know that so long as something has 'characters, settings, problems and resolutions' it will be identified as a story and people will begin listening to it in the way they normally listen to stories.

We know as well that we can make the story interesting by making any one or more of the components interesting.

How do we make our characters interesting? What about the settings?

sufficient detail
variety of description
humanising details (habits, sayings, ways of doing a job)
describing people or places from different viewpoints

What makes a problem interesting and a resolution satisfying?

the human feelings or emotions surrounding the issue

Keeping narrative structure in mind allows the interviewer to keep an eye on what has and hasn't been covered in an interview.

We can think things like, 'Oh he's gone into the place in amazing detail but so far there's nothing about the characters.' and then ask the appropriate question to get something about the characters.

Once this has started we might ask questions like, 'What sort of man was Mr Smith? How did he behave? What did he do? What would he say?'

This way the interviewee can be coaxed into bringing a characters, settings, problems and resolution alive. They will add a vibrancy and fascination that will be satisfying for listener and interviewee.

The most important oral history questions of all time?

'What happened?

'What happened next?'

Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
P.O. Box 5300, West End, Q4101, 
Brisbane, Australia
Tel. 61 (0)7 3846 3135
Mob. 0417 478408
Email. mail@storytell.com.au 
All contents copyright 2009, Daryll Bellingham. All rights reserved.
Revised: 1st March, 2009
URL of this page: www.storytell.com.au/comoralhistint.html