What Makes a Good Interviewer?

A colleague and I were recently sharing stories about “when interviewers attack” and he told a particular story, which I could relate to, about being interviewed by a reporter for a local paper. The interview lasted five hours after the reporter showed up an hour late.  The reporter didn’t record the interview and she took very few notes.  She called my colleague while he was on a scheduled family vacation, hours before the publishing deadline, requesting help with the content and organization of the interview.  When my colleague asked if he could read the article before publication, the reporter declined.  When the article came out, she included the little content from their interview;  that was, of course, her journalistic choice.  Ironically, in the course of the interview, the journalist, perched on her elbow, asked my colleague: “What makes a good interviewer?”  He rattled off the standard musts, hoping she would perhaps at some point look him in the eye and listen to him, and maybe take a note or two.  However, the journalist had a glazed-over look, interrupted him, and launched into a pontification of her own about what makes a good interviewer.  Apparently, she did that a lot — asked a question, then answered it herself, with a story about herself.

As an oral historian, it’s a great learning experience to be on the other side of an interview.  Especially a really long one with an unexpected outcome.  Having been interviewed myself a few times, I know how it feels.  There are obvious differences between journalism and oral history, but it’s the similarities that have my attention today. The biggest similarity being the vulnerability of the interviewee.  Talking to a stranger for hours creates a quickly-forged intimacy.  And the interviewee, at that point, is doing all of the opening up.  It’s a process that takes a lot out of the person being interviewed, as well as the person doing the interview.  Both the interviewer and the narrator are working together to create a product, whether it’s a newspaper article or an archived interview.

One of the things we pride ourselves on here at the Center, and in the field of oral history, is the ethical partnership between oral historian and narrator.  So now I’m curious:  has anyone been interviewed for an oral history project ever felt drained, disrespected, disappointed, and unheard?

I would venture to say that the methodology and process involved in the creation of an oral history can help to prevent that outcome (see http://www.oralhistory.org/wiki/index.php/Evaluation_Guide).  However, my colleague’s experience and my own have made me acutely aware of the reason that best practices are in place for our interviewers.

To answer the reporter’s question, as posed to my colleague,  I’d like to weigh in.   A good interviewer needs to be at least five things:

1) Familiar with modern recording devices; or an excellent note-taker, if a device is neither available, nor appropriate

2) A good researcher (know what you want to ask before you get there)

3) A good listener who asks follow-up questions when appropriate

4) Someone who asks open-ended questions

5) Devoted to the follow-through of the end-product

For now, I’d like to leave you with the same question.  What skill set do you think people need to conduct an interview that will stand the test of time?

Please, I want to hear from you.  If you’ve conducted oral histories or interviews or have been interviewed, please share your experiences!


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