Key to Interviewing for Best Results: Preparation

Digital voice recorder
Whether you are writing a memoir for a family member, friend, or are being paid by a client, interviews will be your major ingredient in the mix. Here are some tips for making your interviews effective and efficient.

Establish an interview schedule
A specific date and time keeps your project on track and gives you credibility and shows courtesy to your subject. One possible schedule is one hour per week at 10 a.m. for eight weeks. You may extend the number of weeks if more time is needed, but it’s a good idea not to extend the clock time. I have a client with Attention Deficit Disorder and a bladder issue. He can only do thirty minutes at a time before he begins to dramatically digress, becomes tired, and has to go to the toilet. Elderly persons need special consideration and often thirty minutes is their maximum.

Interview in a comfortable place for your subject
I have done interviews on the telephone, in a subject’s home or office, and in a library. Avoid especially dark places and places that are too bright as well as public places such as restaurants where many noises can interfere. Sit where there is equal light on your face and the face of your subject. I prefer to sit across from my subjects rather that at their sides. Comfortable chairs in a living room or den work well. I have interviewed at a kitchen table at the request of a subject.

Write your questions
Even experienced interviewers bring written questions. Determine whether an interview will cover childhood, adolescence, married life and family, career and so forth and prepare accordingly. Most likely you will deviate from your prepared questions as you seek to expand a subject’s story. Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered by yes or no. Questions fall into the basics of who, what, where, when, why and how. Be careful using why so as not to appear threatening. See the resources at the end of this article for sample questions.

Use a digital voice recorder
Digital voice recorders range in price from $30 to $500 depending on their features. Simple and low-priced work for me. Learn how to use your recorder before going to an interview. Read the instructions and practice. Set up the recorder with batteries, date and time before the interview. Most recorders have a Hold button or tab which you should engage before you arrive for the interview and which can be easily disengaged when you start the interview.

Have an extra set of batteries with you at the interview. I use longer-life lithium batteries. Some recorders have an indicator to signal when battery life is low. Sometimes, though, batteries die without warning, much like a car battery. I usually glance at my recorder every few minutes during an interview to see whether it is still recording. On one occasion I didn’t do that and discovered later the batteries had quit five minutes into a one-hour interview. I was embarrassed to ask the subject to re-do the interview the next week and she graciously agreed.

Buy a device that plugs into your recorder and telephone for conducting telephone interviews. These can range from $20 to $40.

Take notes while recording
This might sound unnecessary, but you will appreciate it when you begin writing. I use a lined yellow pad and write the date of the interview at the top along with the name of the subject. As the interview progresses I write memory joggers, such as: “Eighth birthday party.” “First date.” “Learning to drive.” “Years in the Marines.” Most often there are several dates and sets of notes on the same sheet. These make it easier for me to locate the correct document and organize the material when I begin writing.

Keep the interview confidential
Do not talk of the interview contents away from your subject. Memoirs are quite personal and it is up to your subject to decide how the information will be used.

Resources for interview questions
All of the following are free:
Oral History Interviews, Questions and Topics
35-page Memory List Question Book
Kindred Keepsakes
Memoirs by Web Biographies
50 Best Lifestory Questions

Share your tips on interviewing best practices. Select comments below or send an email.

Photo: Quinton T. Burris


  1. Wayne,
    As usual, you've given some excellent advice--I found this posting particularly helpful. I hope you don't mind--I printed it for future reference. It was timely for me as I intend to interview a Native American flute player for one of my writing projects. I've never done an interview before and your suggestions have helped me be better prepared.
    I love your blog--I've learned things of great value with each post. Thanks--keep up the good work.

  2. Once again a great job....Always very informative and well thought out. Look forward to the next one!Your advice is very useful. Thank you

    1. Thanks for letting me know it was helpful. For more on using a digital voice recorder see my guest article at