HOW TO INTERVIEW SOMEONE
ABOUT THEIR Memories
Follow these easy steps to interview, record and preserve someone’s stories
Interviewing people is so much fun. You get to ask all the questions, hear their best stories and nicely pry into their lives. Who doesn’t want to do that? (Ha! Just kidding! Mostly.)
There are amazing people in your life right now — people who have inspired you, supported you, or who are just downright good storytellers. When these people are gone, their stories will go with them. Don’t wait until it’s too late! Make time now to interview these people, and finally record and preserve their stories.
Here’s your 10-step checklist for
interviewing a family member or friend
- Pick someone to interview and ask if he/she is willing to chat with you and share stories.
- Set a date and choose a quiet location for your chat.
- Download the 200+ Interview Questions to start your list of questions.
- Write down a few of your favorite stories/topics you’re most interested in recording.
- Choose a recording device and practice using it.
- Review our interview best practices.
- Show up on time for your chat.
- Ask for permission to record the conversation.
- Smile. Thank your interviewee for his/her time. Start asking questions.
Who TO INTERVIEW
The obvious people to start interviewing are members of the generations you came from — grandparents, parents, great aunts and great uncles, etc. They’ve lived longer than you, have more life experiences and are often retired so they may have more time to sit and talk to you.
If this is your first time interviewing someone about their life stories and memories, pick someone you’re comfortable with and whose stories you already know and appreciate. Knowing the stories and memories you’re after can make it easier for both of you.
People who are naturally talkative and open about their lives may be more likely to share their stories and memories. But that doesn’t mean the shy, quiet people in your life won’t be good interviewees. Sometimes they just need someone to take an interest and ask them!
How TO ASK THEM
We’ll let you in on a little secret that applies to about 95% of human beings: we like to talk about ourselves! Most people will be flattered that you’re interested in their stories. These are your loved ones, after all, they are typically tickled that you want to spend time with them. Tell them why this project is important to you. Explain what you plan to do with their memories. Assure them you will not record anything they’re not comfortable sharing. And let them know how long this interview session will last — two hours is probably the maximum. You can always schedule additional interviews.
Where to Interview Someone
The best interviews are conducted in your loved one’s home. That’s where they’ll be most comfortable and at ease, and able to concentrate on the questions you’re asking. It’s also helpful if they can bring out their collection of photos and memorabilia to help jog their memories, look for details and share what’s important to them. Ask if you can conduct the interview in their home.
If their home isn’t an option, see if you could meet at a relative’s home. Another option would be to reserve a private room at a local library or coffee shop. You’re looking for a quiet place with no distractions where you both can be comfortable and get a nice, clear recording of your conversation.
What Questions to Ask
An easier question might be: What questions not to ask?! There are so many ways you can go with your interview. Our best advice is to start with what’s most important to record. Are there certain stories or memories you really love and want to hear? Is there a time of their life you’re interested in? Are there unanswered questions you’ve always wanted to ask? Let your priority stories guide your interview.
It’s best to write down at least a few questions to get your interview started. If you’re a more casual interviewer, you may enjoy a less structured interview and more of a conversation. If there’s a lot of information you want to ask about, you’ll need to keep your interviewee on task with a list of questions.
Read our 200+ Interview Questions guide to help you plan your interview.
How to Record an Interview
Even if you’re a fast typer, we recommend recording your interview so you can concentrate on the conversation, and not writing down responses.
There are many ways to record your interview. If you have a smartphone, download a free voice recorder app. We’ve made a voice recorder app recommendation in the Resource section. You could also use an inexpensive digital recorder, or set up a video camera to record the interview.
Whichever method you choose, be sure to practice it a few times before your first interview.
How to Interview Someone
A good interview feels like a friendly conversation and not an interrogation. This should be a fun experience for you and the person you’re interviewing. Unlike interviewing a stranger, your interviewees already trust and like you. It’s much easier to make family members feel comfortable and relaxed, so they’ll open up to you and share personal stories.
First, ask them if you can record the interview.
This is the polite thing to do. Then start the recorder and set it aside so it isn’t staring them in the face and making them nervous. The recorder is the thing that freaks people out. It suddenly makes what you’re doing seem much more formal and serious. So don’t keep looking at the recorder. The goal is for it to disappear into the background.
Next, thank the person for their time.
Remind them that you love their stories, think they’re an amazing person and want to share their memories with the rest of the family. Some people will love hearing this, others will be embarrassed or humble about it, but it’s a good way to show them that you really are interested.
Now, bring out your interview questions and get to work.
Smile a lot. Nod your head. Laugh when appropriate. In short, be a very good listener. And for goodness sake, keep quiet! You should not be talking much. Really listen to their answers. If they’re in the middle of a story and you hear something interesting and want to learn more, don’t interrupt them to ask your question. Just jot down a quick note about it and then you can bring it up the next time there’s a lull in the conversation.
Good interviewers embrace awkward silences.
Resist the urge to fill them! Let silences linger and your interviewee will almost always start talking again, often bringing up details and memories you’ve never heard before.
Let’s talk about personal questions for a minute.
Don’t start with them! Let your loved one warm up on easy questions and happy memories, like “What was the best gift you received as a kid?” or “Tell me about your favorite childhood pet.” Once they’re chatting away, then you can start asking deeper, more philosophical questions, like, “What’s one of the best lessons you’ve learned in your life?” or “Who is one of your personal mentors?” If the conversation is going well, test a couple of personal questions and see how they react. Try something like, “Do you have any big regrets?” or “What’s one thing you wish you could do over?”
A good rule of thumb before asking someone a really personal question is to ask yourself, “Could I answer this?” If you can’t answer it or wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it, then maybe leave it off your list.
Final thought on interviewing:
This is your chance, don’t waste it by not asking the good questions. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know the answer! The worst that can happen is your grandma says, “Honey! I’m not going to talk about that!” And then you’ll quickly move on to another question, maybe about her apple crisp recipe.
How to Transcribe an Interview
You’ve successfully conducted and recorded your interview, and now you need to transcribe it (turn their words into written form). If you have time and a computer, you can transcribe your interview. We’re not going to lie, this is rather tedious and difficult to do without the right equipment. But it’s not impossible and it’s your cheapest option.
Another option is to use a transcription service. You’ll upload your audio file to a website and they’ll listen to it and email you a word document of the interview. It’s pretty slick! For recommendations on transcription services, see the Resources page.
You also could try searching for a free voice typing or voice command program for your computer. We’ve never tried these, but we know you’ll spend a fair amount of time correcting errors and inaccuracies.
No matter how you do it, transcribe your interview so all the stories and memories are neatly typed into a word document. This is a precious document — make an electronic copy of the original and email it to yourself and also consider printing a paper copy. You don’t want to lose these original memories!