oral history video interview techniques

Oral History Video Interview Overview

This page presents best practices for Oral History Interviews as learned, observed, and lived by Bill and students enrolled in Writing, Research, Technology, Spring and Fall 2009 and 2010, at Rowan University. The page covers interview tips, technology set-ups, narrator-interviewer placement, and a host of other important related issues. It will be updated each semester the course its taught. We welcome your feedback.

Oral History Video Interview Techniques

On November 8 and 9, 2010, the class discussed Oral History Techniques as presented by Studs Terkel, Kathryn Anderson, and Dana Jack in The Oral History Reader. Here is what students came up with:

Monday-Wednesday section:



Tuesday-Thursday section:



On March 9, 2009, the class discussed the same essays. Here is their list of techniques:

On Oct 28, 2009, the class discussed the same essays. Here is their list of techniques:

oral history techniques

The key point to take away from the discussion was that the goal of the interviewer is to provide the narrator with the ability to tell her story in her own words over the course of the interview. Along with the above list, the narrator can achieve this goal by:

  • approaching the interview with the goal of touching on certain themes
  • not having preset questions (preset questions make the focus of the interview the questions themselves)
  • physically showing that you are interested in what the narrator is saying by making eye contact, nodding or smiling where appropriate, and so on
  • asking the narrator to explain minor details of their history, such as individual words they mention, seemingly irrelevant side-comments they make, and so on
  • making sure the narrator is comfortably seated
  • taking breaks when you are getting tired and/or you sense the narrator is getting tired, thirsty, and so on

Unlike with traditional text histories, where the story comes through the words on the pages, with oral histories the story comes through verbal and non-verbal cues, all of which the interviewer needs to be aware of. These cues include:

  • verbal: listening for side-comments, repeated phrases or parts of their story, pauses during there discussion, sighs;
  • non-verbal: looking down and away from the interviewer, changing body position, change in use of hand-gestures, smiles, frowns, appearing confused or sad.

Each of these cues, when understood in context, can provide the interview with insight into what the narrator is saying and what they mean. It is okay to specifically comment on/ask questions about both verbal and non-verbal cues. For example:

  • I noticed while you were talking about your father you had a very distant look in your eyes. Can you talk about that for a while?
  • At the end of your story, you sighed quite heavily. Why is that?
  • You look like you still have some things to say about that subject. Can you say a little more?

In order to make come up with these kinds of questions, the interviewer must be listening and watching intently. It is tiring work, but work that is well-worth it.

Setting up the Interview Space

The location of the interview is important. Ideally the interview will be in a quiet location where you can talk without a lot of background noise. The narrator should be comfortable, as should the interviewer. If either is uncomfortable they will begin to pay attention to that discomfort instead of each other. Use a tripod to steady the video camera; do not hold it in your hand. If necessary and able, move furniture out of the way to make the interview location more inviting. For example:

This camera location will yield a video composition that looks like this:

still images of narrator in left third of frame

When positioning the narrator in the camera frame as instructed above, you will be employing a technique called the Rule of Thirds (be sure to see more examples off of this link). Be positioning the narrator off-center you will help ensure that the narrator does not look into the camera during the discussion. Rather, the narrator should be looking at the interviewer, who is positioned just to the side of the camera. Here are a few more examples of excellent positioning according to the Rule of Thirds:

rule of thiirds good

Picture 192

good rule of thirds right

Less effective narrator positions and interview settings

Narrator positioned too far into the corner:

too far to the bottom right

Camera positioned so it is looking down at the narrator:

Looking down at the narrator

Camera positioned too far away and showcases objects instead of the narrator:

too far away

Camera not level:

camera not level

Interview setting too dark:

Setting too dark

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