Conducting the interview

The oral history interview is conducted according to a well-thought-out plan. However, during the interview it is important to get a detailed story that stems from the author’s personal experience instead of merely general answers to questions.


  • Do not just read questions from your notes.
  • Prepare plan for the interview and what you want to find out, but do not mechanically stick to that.
  • Follow the story carefully to ask clarifying questions at the right time.
  • Do not interrupt the narrator.
  • Do not argue with the narrator.

The main rule of the interview is to not interrupt the narrator, even if he/she deviates from the topic or what is being told seems unimportant to you at that time. It is better to let the episode end naturally and only then tactically guide the conversation back to the topic, because you can never predict what will be left unsaid if the narrator is interrupted. By interrupting, you might stop not only that particular story, but a series of subsequent narratives that would have been important (Thompson, 1978).

Initially, listen to everything without interrupting the story, and after that you can return to issues that have remained unclear. A follow-up interview is also valuable because the narration has awakened memories in the author, and he or she can remember much more the next time.

An oral history interview follows issues in the sequence of importance that the interviewer approaches them, while the life story reveals the degree of importance that the narrator him- or herself assigns to the depicted events by selecting events and topics to talk about and determining the order in which he or she does so.

It is best to start the life-story interview with the narrator’s own chosen topics and to follow his/her timeline. If the person cannot decide how to begin and the pause is prolonged, suggest that interviewees begin with their first childhood memories, which forces them to return to a natural beginning. Specificity leads to the continuation of the story. First impressions reveal the nature of the narrator. Memories of parents and grandparents also help interviewers begin to orientate in the narrator’s family relationships.

Pay attention:

  • The story should not be general, but related to specific life events and experiences.
  • The narrator should be given time to sort through his/her thoughts.
  • Do not be afraid of silent pauses.

Stories do not lie ready in the narrator’s mind and emerge in complete form – they are created gradually during the narration.

In a life-story interview, it is important to be able to listen and ask questions that do not change the direction of the narrative, but follow from what has already been said.