Interviewing Family Members – It’s Not As Easy As It Looks!

interview tipsSometimes it seems like interviewing another member of your family would be a breeze,right? The fact is that getting a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle to actually sit down and be interviewed is half the battle. Quite a bit of preparation is needed on your part as the interviewer and you need to have some basic skills which you’ll use during the interview if you want great results.

Tips and Tricks for Interviewing Family Members

  • Be prepared. Make sure you have all your equipment and your questions or prompts.There are times when an opportunity for an interview pops up unexpectedly. Make sure you are adept at improvising; having an app like Saving Memories Forever on your smartphone is good insurance!
  • Ask permission. Keep track of your time and if necessary, ask if you can extend the interview. If using a digital recorder or smartphone app, ask permission of the interview subject and also take time to explain the tool or the process.
  • One question at a time. Don’t bunch several questions together in one long question. Short, open-ended questions asked one at a time work best.
  • Fly solo (mostly). Plan on doing the interview in a one-on-one format. Sometimes having others around can be inhibiting unless you are at a family gather such as a wedding or a holiday meal. Especially when dealing with difficult topics, make sure that the interview subject is comfortable telling their story with those in the room.
  • Use the grandkids. Sometimes it is can be difficult to get older family members to answer questions. Consider using the grandchildren to ask the questions. No grandparent can resist telling their story to an interested child.
  • Multiple interview subjects help to focus on relationships. Having two or more persons as part of an interview can allow for a natural exchange of comments and those comments in turn, give some insight into the relationship between those people.
  • Use props. Photos and family mementos are great to elicit stories and bring back memories. Bring the props out one by one.
  • Don’t interrupt. If inspiration strikes and you think of a good question, jot it down and save it for another part of the interview.
  • Don’t challenge inaccurate information. During a response to a question you may see that the information offered conflicts with your research or what others have offered. Don’t contradict and don’t challenge. You’ll have time to process the information and to put it into context of your family’s history later on as you compile and prepare the contents for preservation and sharing.
  • Don’t tire out your subject. Most interviews should be one hour or less in length with a max of 90 minutes. Saving Memories Forever suggests that the response for each question should take about five minutes and that the entire interview should last no longer than 45 minutes. In reality, the interview should stop when you first see that your subject is getting tired. Remember, you want the interview to be a positive experience and possibly lead to future interviews.
  • Redirect and bring them back. Sometimes a person will go off on a tangent and speak about a topic that is not relevant. Deftly and gently bring them back around to the original question. Having the question written down and in a position where the interviewee can refer to it will also help with focus.
  • Check the time. If you and your subject have agreed on a set end time, respect this and schedule another interview if necessary.
  • Don’t frame the discussion. If your research shows that a person was hard to live with or perhaps had difficult relations with others, don’t offer those details on the initial question. See what the interview subject response with and then follow-up with “Well, I heard that . . .” or “Uncle Charles told me that . . .” and offer your evidence.
  • Silence counts. It is fine if your interview subject is silent for a short time; generating memories is hard work! These gaps can be edited out later on.
  • Don’t interrogate. Some older relatives may not offer up names and dates in the beginning; don’t pepper them with questions. Circle back with questions such as “What was Aunt Cora’s maiden name?”
  • Don’t show off. The interview is not about you and your skills. Your family member is the star so let their star shine.
  • Transcribe right away. Don’t put off transcribing the oral interview if that is part of your project. Do this while the details of the interview are fresh in your mind.
  • Send a thank you note. Make sure the interview subject is thanked and is appreciated for their contribution. This can also ensure future interviews with the same person.

© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

downloadThomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit

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About Saving Memories Forever is an affordable online system that helps people record, share, and save their family stories. It combines a free app for iPhone/iPad devices and Android smartphones with a private website. You can join us as a Free Member to try out the system. Or you can join as a Premium Subscriber where you will have unlimited access to all of the features. Either way, Saving Memories Forever is an easy-to-use system that helps you build a collection of family stories and keeps those stories organized and accessible to family members. Our Blog is a celebration of family and life in general. Our posts offer helpful tips and insights that will help you on your way to preserving your family's oral tradition.

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