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On Monday 30 July I attended a seminar presented by the Walkley Foundation, ‘The art of interview’, at the State Library of NSW. The session featured Mark Schoofs, investigations and projects editor for BuzzFeed News, New York and Alice Workman, BuzzFeed Australia political editor. Though it was mostly aimed at aspiring journalists, as an oral historian, I think there were some valuable insights to be gleaned from the session that I want to share.

A few key messages from the session were:

  • An interview is not a list of questions
  • It’s not about you or your questions, its about them and what information/story they have to share
  • Learn about your source/interviewee, what motivation might they have to talk?
  • Always act with integrity – this goes beyond honesty and is about establishing trust with the interviewee, and complying with ethical standards.

Schoofs went over the different types of interviewees, but spent a bit more time on a particular type of interviewee – the interviewee who has information to provide:

  • Figure out your interviewees motives and word your questions to align with their vocabulary
  • Enlist them on your quest – get them excited about putting together the story
  • Show them what you know – bring “conversation pieces” – and a letter you can give them in case they decline to talk
  • Word your questions in a way where “No” is not an option – Be careful how you frame questions.

Other points about ensuring you allow your interviewee to put their point across, and representing their point of view clearly afterward when you write the story were also covered. Schoofs provided advice when it came to getting people to talk to you – tell them they can ask you any questions, establish trust.

One final insight I gathered from the session relates to keeping a sort of diary throughout your interviewing process, something I wish I had more motivation to do, as it records impressions and important feedback to yourself while it’s all still fresh. How did they appear during the interview, what questions made them uncomfortable, what questions just didn’t work?

Do other oral historians write impressions from their interview? Do you have any tips to share on how you elicit responses? I’d like to hear from you.