The Oral History Workshop

Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and Friends


By Cynthia Hart

By Lisa Samson

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We all know that we should ask now, before it’s too late, before the stories are gone forever. But knowing and doing are two different things.

Cynthia Hart, author of Cynthia Hart’s Scrapbook Workshop, shows exactly how to collect, record, share, and preserve a family member’s or a friend’s oral history in this practical and inspirational guide. The Oral History Workshop breaks down what too often feels like an overwhelming project into a series of easily manageable steps: how to prepare for an interview; how to become a better listener; why there’s always more beneath the surface and the questions to ask to get there; the pros and cons of video recording, including how your subjects should dress so the focus is on their words; four steps to keeping the interview on track; how to be attentive to your subject’s energy levels; and the art of archiving or scrapbooking the interview into a finished keepsake.

At the heart of the book are hundreds of questions designed to cover every aspect of your subject’s history: Do you remember when and how you learned to read? Who in your life showed you the most kindness? What insights have you gained about your parents over the years? Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist? In what ways were you introduced to music? What is the first gift you remember giving? If you could hold on to one memory forever, what would it be? When the answers are pieced together, a mosaic appears—a living history.


"The universe is made up of stories, not atoms."

—Muriel Rukeyser



Before You Ask

Preparing for the Interview

You probably already know whom you want to interview. Maybe you've thought about approaching your parents for years and put it off—if so, you're not alone. You may even know the topics or events you'd like to learn more about or the questions you'd like to ask. If not, start off by identifying your hopes for the scope of this project. Are you interested in a certain time period—your subject's childhood or experience of a unique slice of history? Are you curious about a particular area of your subject's life—a short fling with an alternate career or life path, a previous marriage? Are there specific stories you've heard time and again and want down for the record once and for all—the elaborate prank with unintended consequences, the storied courtship? Or are you in it for the big picture—a full-scale account of your subject's life?

Of course, your plan may change as you delve into the project. And that's the beauty of human interaction: You sit down for an hour-long interview about childhood experiences, and two and a half hours later you're talking about foreign languages and apricot pie.

Better Listening with Your Third Ear

You can ask the most intriguing question in the world of the most fascinating person on earth—but if you don't know how to listen, odds are you'll end up missing a lot.

Fortunately, you can train yourself to listen with true compassion and curiosity, using what we'll call a "third ear." Imagine yourself as a tiny person sitting inside your own head, just behind your right ear, on an itsy-bitsy (but comfy) chair. From this vantage point, this extra ear can relax and absorb all that is said while the actual you conducts the interview. Your third ear will sense the implied meanings deep within the stories being told; detect emotional nuance; and focus on tone of voice, the emphasis placed on certain words and phrases, or the significance of a sigh or lengthy pause.

This focused listening will also help you direct the interview so that it flows naturally from topic to topic. Although you'll be guided by your prepared list of questions (see chapter 3), be sensitive to any direction your interviewee wants to take. Listen and improvise. If a particular question unearths an informational gold mine, don't just move on to the next question on your list—follow up with a logically related query. (Likewise, if a particular inquiry launches a long-winded aside that you don't feel is contributing to the picture, feel free to offer a diverting question—while trying to remain respectful of your interviewee's narrative.)

Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean?

Match Your Interview to Your Goals

Once you have a sense of your general intentions, you're one step closer to figuring out what type of interview is right for you. Other factors to consider are the amounts of time and energy you can invest, how much you want to ask, and what you want to do with the information you hope to capture. Recorded interviews will give you more options, but they do require more effort.

Of course, any interview is worthwhile. You may just want to hear that one story of your mother's about how her long-lost puppy came home—that would be an unrecorded, conversational interview. Or you might commit to recording a series of interviews with your Aunt Diane, focusing on her time as a combat nurse during the Vietnam War—with the intention of contributing the recordings to a historical archives. (Yes, that's archives, singular—the spelling preferred by professional archivists in North America. See Archiving Your Interview for more on how an archives may come to bear on your interview.)

There are many ways to describe the types of interviews that professionals conduct: focused, formal, informal, off the record, life history, topical, journalistic, structured, biographical, unstructured, and more. Much of this book is about "recorded interviews," the gold standard in oral history terms. Before you decide on your method, take into consideration your interviewee's situation, wishes, and temperament (along with your own motivations, of course). Though you may know of or even invent other ways to conduct interviews, here are two basic approaches.

The unrecorded interview—in which questions may be planned or unplanned; the interviewer may write down a few notes to help jog his memory later or simply listen. No audio or video recording or full written record is created. This method is easiest, and the experience can make for treasured memories; in cases where an unexpected interview opportunity arises, it might be the only option. Without a recording, however, those precious stories may be lost—unless the listener makes the effort to pass them on anecdotally or orally (the simple means by which many folktales, legends, and myths have stood the test of time).

The recorded interview—in which a question list is prepared, the interview is recorded, and the tangible product (the audio or video recording) is safeguarded for posterity. A record of the interviewee's voice (and of his image, in the case of video) gives added meaning to his stories. The interview content may be shared—with the interviewee's permission—with family members and friends or other specific audiences; it may also be placed in a personal or family archives, an established oral history project, or an institutional archives where it will be available to researchers, historians, and other interested parties.

Look Beneath the Surface

"What was dinnertime like when you were growing up?" "Oh, well, we didn't tend to eat together much."

The initial response to a question may not contain a complete answer; it may, in fact, hide significant portions of the total picture. To dig deeper, you will have to quickly compose clarifying questions. "So, who usually made your dinner?" You might find out that your subject learned to cook at an early age because both of his parents worked—there's certainly a story there.

Watch out in particular for complaints, which may actually be expressions of frustration or fear. A sensitive follow-up question could spark a discussion of the subtle feelings behind the complaint—perhaps even revealing the real who, what, when, where, and why of the experience.

Let's say your subject responds to a question such as, "Education is a valuable tool. How did it affect your life?" with "I always hated school!" Don't just move on to the next question on your list; explore. And be specific. A question like "What did you hate so much about it?" or "When did you start feeling that way?" might open up further conversation more readily than a simple "Really?" or "How come?"

Broad questions have a way of eliciting vague answers. Instead of "Tell me about high school," you might start with a smaller, more specific question: "Who were your best friends in high school?" A "little" question about a childhood game could reveal a big truth about a family dynamic. Aim for a combination of broad and specific questions to get the full story. Think of yourself as a detective. Listen for subtle clues and use your curiosity to ferret out as many facets of a story as possible. Strive to see the big picture, the larger context behind the answers you're given. Use your sense of empathy to figure out what was really going on. How would you have felt about cooking your own dinner at age twelve? You might ask other questions about family chores to try to find out whether your subject carried an inordinate amount of responsibility as a child. How did he feel when he visited other families and saw their mealtime rituals? Build question upon question.

what makes a good Interviewer

Interviewing is a skill, one in which the ordinary processes of asking and listening are used as tools for story collecting. It's not unrelated to normal conversation, but it does take some extra effort. Fortunately, it's like riding a bike—once you've learned how, you'll always be ready to go.

What makes a good interviewer? Let's take a page from two acknowledged masters of the form, Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air and Oprah Winfrey. Their questions are well researched and interesting—but so are those of hundreds of other media folks who don't inspire such good storytelling. The key is in their empathy, insight, and genuine curiosity. That's what moves guests to open up and share. (It helps that these hosts also seem to be truly at ease, comfortable with their guests and with the process.)

So what's the takeaway? Be human. Be curious. Be empathetic. And relax—your demeanor will help put your interviewee at ease.

Shhhh . . . Take a Tip from Psychotherapists

Interviews are more one-sided than regular conversations—you ask the questions, he answers—but there's more to them than that. Your interviewee will be listening, too. Not just to the content of your questions, but also to the way you ask them. So be as thoughtful and engaged as you can, and let yourself be guided by a spirit of respect. Don't interrupt, and don't offer your opinions about his answers—even an offhand remark can imply censorship and cause an interviewee to clam up or withhold important parts of his story.

Listen with your mind wide open. Keep your follow-up questions empathic ("Was that tough for you?") rather than judgmental ("Why didn't you try harder?").

Interviewing does relate in some ways to classic psychotherapy. The psychotherapist's "listening process" involves more than words; it refers to all data taken in by the therapist (and by the patient)—silences, gestures, posture . . . The therapist is very, very careful about what she says, usually keeping her tone and diction neutral to avoid implying judgment. Some believe that the best mode of therapeutic "questioning" is silence—no bias demonstrated there—but that would be extreme for an interview.

Even in interviewing, though, some silence can be a virtue. Particularly if the interviewee is discussing something difficult, a breath of silence implies, "Tell me more, associate further, give me the links to this experience, fantasy, or anxiety."

So, though in preparing for your interview you'll likely focus on what you'll ask, don't forget about the power of a well-chosen pause.

Practice Asking

"Good listeners" are highly prized as friends and colleagues, but there's an art to asking as well. A question is a magic gizmo, a key that opens people up—you'll be amazed to discover what folks will tell you if you just ask. You can draw someone out without pushing or prying (it's very important to respect a person's privacy and boundaries), but don't be shy, either. If someone doesn't want to answer a certain question, he won't—but you'll never find out if you don't ask.

You can start honing your "asking skills" in everyday conversation. "Why?" is the simplest question of all, and it can be a very powerful one. Try using it more often in conversation with family or friends. Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so your practice subject will likely warm up to you as the answer unfolds. Stay in the moment, and listen more carefully than usual.

Instead of volunteering your own opinion, ask a question. If you hear "I really think our new senator is doing a great job," don't launch into why you agree or disagree—ask a question instead. "Why are you so enthusiastic about him?" will do if you can't think of anything more specific. Then sit back and listen. The more you practice, the more adept you'll become at thinking up spontaneous questions, and gradually the role of interviewer will become second nature.

Arranging the Interview

Obviously, a recorded interview isn't something you just spring on someone. You need to ask your subject for her permission in advance—you want an active, engaged participant who's willing to put some thought and energy into the process.

When you approach your interviewee, be prepared for reluctance, even for an outright "No." "Why would anyone care about my life?" she might ask. Perhaps she's averse to "dredging up all that old stuff." Use some gentle persuasion: Tell her it would be an honor to listen to her stories, and be sure to mention that you'd like to record them.

Encourage her to ask questions about the interview process. People tend to feel a lot more comfortable once they know what to expect. Explain that she will ultimately be in control of her interview—she'll decide which questions to answer and what happens to the recording.

Scheduling the Interview

Take your subject's preferences and habits into account when you're setting things up. If you're interviewing someone who is elderly or infirm, you might want to ask a few questions about his daily activities, meal schedules, any relevant health or medication matters, or other factors that might influence his availability for or receptiveness to the interview. The time of day can make a big difference: Some people are "larks" and some are "owls," and a person who is touchy and uncommunicative early in the morning might be much more open and talkative later in the day.

Find out whether your interviewee would prefer to do the interview at his home or somewhere else. Though you should leave the location up to him, make it clear that you'll need a comfortable, quiet place where you'll be undisturbed. His home may or may not fit the bill.

Meaningful Props

Objects and visual aids can be a great boon to storytelling. Prior to the interview, you may want to ask your interviewee to gather a few photographs, birth records, passports, and other items to use as prompts: a family Bible, scrapbooks, old property records, awards, report cards, recipes, tickets. These and other keepsakes can supply vital information and help get the interviewee in the mood for reminiscing.

If the interviewee is a member of your family and you have access to a stash of family photo albums or other memorabilia, you might take the initiative and gather up any materials you think could inspire a story or two.

Interviewing 101

Humans are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike. Even people with very similar life experiences will have strikingly different stories to tell. Honor the subtleties or quirks in those stories (and the pace at which they're told). Some other guidelines to keep in mind:

 Don't rush—the interview process is something to be enjoyed, and people need time to gather their thoughts. Move too quickly and you may cut off your interviewee just as he was getting to the heart of the matter.

 Try to keep the focus on the interviewee and his story. Remember, it's his story, not yours, so no matter how good your rapport or how well you know the stories he's telling, do everything you can to keep the focus on him.

 If your interviewee doesn't wish to answer a particular question, don't insist. Do gently try to elicit the reason for his refusal or discomfort. Try rephrasing the question or explaining why you're asking. But remember, this isn't investigative journalism. It's all right to let some questions go unanswered.

 If your interviewee falls silent, let him pause for a bit as he organizes his thoughts. Cut into the silence too soon and you might be short-circuiting an important connection. And cut yourself the same slack: If you are at a loss for words from time to time, relax and just sit quietly to take stock.

 Don't fidget or rustle your papers, and be aware of any nervous noises generated by your interviewee. It's amazing what a recording device can pick up.

 Don't interrupt. Keep a pad and pencil handy to make quick notes about any new question you'd like to interject, and wait until there is a natural break in the narrative to do so.

 Be sensitive to occasional self-consciousness. Many people find it difficult to speak about themselves at length. Humor is an excellent way to move someone past a self-conscious moment, so use it every chance you get!

 Be tactful and respectful, no matter what your level of intimacy with your interviewee—whether it's your father, an acquaintance, or a distant relative. The interviewee is entrusting you with his story. Be gracious, gentle, and sensitive to any emotions that arise.

 Welcome familiar information when it comes up, even if you've heard it a thousand times; your goal isn't necessarily to unearth new information, but to create a portrait of your interviewee. Be worthy of trust. Don't judge—listen. The more the interviewee trusts you, the more relaxed and engaged he will be. As trust builds, your interviewee may be willing to respond to questions that went unanswered earlier in the interview.

A Sense of History (and a Life History Worksheet)

Is there a particular place that you feel defined a relationship of yours? Do you go there still?

Prior to the interview, find out as much as you can about your interviewee. The more you know about her life and the times and places in which she lived, the easier it will be for you to choose good questions, ask thoughtful follow-up questions, and place answers in context.

Especially if you don't know your interviewee well, it may be helpful to do a little pre-interview session, using the Life History Worksheet to collect basic facts such as birthplace, age, and the names of family members. (You can do this by phone or in person.)

For extra preparation, beef up your knowledge by doing some research. Chicago in the 1940s? Read up on the time and place. Go to a library or search online to familiarize yourself with any major events in history that you think (or know) may have affected your interviewee. Consult contemporaneous magazine articles and newspaper reports for a shortcut to events of any recent era; memoirs or novels from the period (or set in the period) can also offer an overview.

Another way to broaden your sense of context: Reach out to colleagues, family members, neighbors, and friends of your interviewee. (Ask your subject's permission first.) They may provide invaluable details and "insider" facts.

Keeping an Interview on Track

It's a given (and a good thing) that an interview will meander, no matter how carefully you've planned your questions. But if the interviewee is venting old, negative feelings to no productive end or has gotten tied up in minutiae, you may feel you need to rein things in. What do you do to get the interview back on track?

First, try to determine whether the conversation really is off track. Say your interviewee is talking about her love of music and goes into an encyclopedic cataloguing of her favorite artists; if she works in the field or is just especially knowledgeable about it, this recitation might underscore her passion and contribute to a fuller picture of her personality. It might make sense to encourage her to show off her extensive scholarship rather than try to move away from the topic. Likewise, an interviewee might lapse into an academic-sounding discussion of political situations he encountered abroad, but ask yourself: Might this information be useful to a researcher someday?

If it's clear, however, that the tangent contributes little to your understanding of the subject and his life, you may try to respectfully redirect him. You might point out that, while you find the information interesting, you're concerned about the time. Make a note of the subject he was discussing and let him know that you'll come back to it if there's time left at the end of the session.

Emotional Reactions

Who is the best travel companion you've ever had? Where did you go together?

The interview process can put us in touch with wonderful memories and bring laughter and tears of joy, but it can also stir up negative emotions. Be prepared for sadness, tears, and tensions, and try to ease them with gentle words, a touch, a hug—or just compassionate silence (whatever's most appropriate to your relationship with the interviewee). You may find yourself starting to cry, too, and that's only natural.

Some questions, though, may awaken troubling, painful, or traumatic memories. Be supportive, but don't attempt to take on the role of therapist if you haven't had the training—you are not equipped to help in that way. As the person responsible for bringing these memories and emotions to the surface, you do owe it to your interviewee to be extra sensitive and reassuring. Let her know that you recognize your part in the upset and that you care about her well-being.

If your interviewee is truly shaken, stop the interview and take a break or pick up at another time. Check in shortly after you leave. If her response is severe, consider reaching out to one of her close friends, family members, or a caregiver; you might also help her identify resources for professional help.

Deciding When to Stop

Whether it's an interruption or a difficult moment, there may be times during an interview when stopping or pausing seems like the right thing to do. Sometimes it is, but there are also times when it makes more sense to continue. Use your judgment, and consider the following suggestions:

 If something interrupts the interview—a ringing phone or the arrival of a visitor, for instance—it may be difficult to refocus without taking a break. It's usually best to stop recording and wait until the interviewee is able to give you his full attention again. In some instances, you may need to resume the interview another day.

 An interviewee might ask you to stop recording so he can say something "off the record." Rather than stopping (which entails fiddling with your equipment and may interrupt the flow of the interview), propose skipping the question and moving on. Make a note of the dropped question and promise to return to it later.

 If a question triggers a long pause or brings on tears or anger, you may feel you should stop recording. Try not to, and just go with the flow instead. Stop, and you may make an interviewee feel he's being criticized or censored.

Discussing death

You may balk at the notion of talking about death with your interviewee, but it's a universal subject—and, in fact, your interviewee may want to talk about the passing of loved ones.

You could say there are two kinds of people: those who have already lost someone dear to them and those who haven't yet. There can be a big difference in how someone sees life and death depending upon this one thing. Before losing a loved one, talking about death may seem scary and abstract—taboo, in a sense. Once you understand what it's like to lose someone, that death affects everyone, you may feel that there's nothing wrong with talking about it.

If you want to discuss the losses an interviewee has experienced, his own mortality, or death in general, the best way to find out if he is willing to talk about it is to ask.

How to Handle Secrets

How good are you at keeping secrets? Have you ever been told a really important secret?

A special intimacy often develops between interviewer and interviewee, a bond that can sometimes alter the interviewee's normal sense of privacy; he may divulge personal information he had previously kept to himself.

Secrets are tricky things, and their revelation can trigger two kinds of issues, one emotional, the other legal. When you are told a secret, the implication is that you will keep it to yourself—but if you intend to share the interview in some way, that poses a problem. Help clarify your interviewee's intentions: Ask him if he still feels the content should be kept secret; if so, find out from whom and for how long he would like it withheld. This sort of discussion will make it easier for you to handle future access to the information.

Some secrets are benign, especially when they're revealed forty or fifty years after the fact (sneaking out through the bedroom window at age fifteen, for instance). The sharing of this sort of secret isn't going to make either of you uncomfortable—it may lead to a rich conversation about first loves, an adolescent's relationship with his parents, and so forth. But there are secrets and then there are secrets—things like physical, psychological, or sexual trauma or abuse, or criminal acts. The chances of someone's revealing any dire secrets in a life history interview are remote, but you might be faced with such a situation. If you are, it's likely to involve strong feelings.


On Sale
Aug 28, 2018
Page Count
180 pages

Cynthia Hart

Cynthia Hart

About the Author

Cynthia Hart is a renowned, bestselling designer, author, and artist who brings old-fashioned beauty to our modern lives. She is the author of the perennially bestselling Cynthia Hart's Victoriana Calendar, The Oral History Workshop, Cynthia Hart's Scrapbook Workshop, and other books, as well as Cynthia Hart's Victoriana Cats stationery products, including a sticker book, wrapping papers and gift tags, and jigsaw puzzles. Cynthia is the leading visual interpreter of Victoriana; her designs can be found on greeting cards, home furnishings, fragrances, and gift and stationery products. Her website is

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