Oral History Workshop – 7

Features of questions for an interview

Shahed Yazdan
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


The oral history website is going to provide the educational materials of some oral history workshops to the audience in written form. The present series has been prepared using the materials of one of these workshops. As you will see, many of the provided contents are not original or less said contents, but we have tried to provide categorized contents so that they can be used more.




During the interview

During the interview, the interviewer asks questions; in this section, the features of the questions which are going to be asked will be discussed.


Features of questions for an interview

• The first principle is that the question should be single-sentence. It is forbidden to use two or more questions simultaneously; because the interviewee usually talks about the last question and the rest is ignored.

• The question must be interrogative, nor predicative.

• Questions should be asked in order from easy to difficult. The end of the session should end with easy questions so that the interviewee's mind is not tired and there is motivation to continue the next session.

• It is forbidden to pontificate in asking questions.

• Long introduction is prohibited; if the questions are asked according to the interviewee, no introduction is needed. If an introduction is given, it means that either we are pontificating or the interviewee has no knowledge about the subject, which is wrong in both cases.

• The questions should be appropriate to the person's position.

• The questions should be clear so that the narrator understands the researcher's meaning.

• The interviewer should use art and not ask several sensitive questions in a row.

• General questions are useless. They should be trivial and short.

• For asking some sensitive questions, get the permission of the interviewee. Not allowing a question to be asked is better than having the interviewee back out and canceling the entire interview.

• Questions should be asked calmly and without haste and excitement.

• Marginal questions that are not related to the topic should not be asked.

• For each question that is asked, the interviewer must wait until the interviewee's answer is finished and then ask the next question. The interviewer must have the skill of listening well.

• If the interviewer does not understand the answer, he or she must honestly state this; otherwise, the audience of the book may not understand the answer too.

• If the interviewer does not understand or does not accept something, he or she can enter into an argument with the interviewee, but if the narrator insists on his or her words, the interviewer does not have the right to enter into an argument; he or she should stop the discussion there.

• The interviewer's art is to gently guide the interview process in the right direction if the narrator says something irrelevant to the question.

• The interviewer requests the narrator to explain specialized terms; it is possible that the interviewee means something different from the words in the dictionary.

• The interviewer should hear the meaning of native and local words from the narrator.

• If the narrator says something wrong, for example, he or she made a mistake in stating a date, the interviewer should respectfully mention him or her so that the interview is not distorted in terms of documentation.

• Avoid using vague and complimentary adjectives and adverbs. Cases such as the proud operation or the traitor Mohammad Reza Pahlavi are of this type.

• The interviewer should not involve his personal interests in the interview. In addition to taking time, this issue also distracts the interviewee's mind.

• The interviewer's tone should be ordinary; not too technical and formal and not too intimate.

• The interviewer can help the narrator in answering the questions in a very limited way, but these cases should not be too much, because in this case, the active mind is taken away from the interviewee.

• The dignity of the narrator should be respected when asking questions.

• The interviewer should be active and not passive. When the active interviewer asks the questions, the narrator tries to bring his memories to mind, retrieve and then express them; but the passive interviewer just asks the question and waits for the narrator to speak without any reaction.

• Some believe that the interview questions should be given to the interviewee before the meeting, and some others believe that this should not be done; although more people are of the opinion that the main questions should not be given to the narrator, but general questions should be asked to him or her before each meeting so that he or she can enter the interview with more readiness.

• Avoid asking biased questions; such questions will either cause self-censorship or remain unanswered.

• Questions should focus on memory and analysis. These questions can be asked separately in different sessions or a combination of both can be asked to the narrator in one session.

• Part of the meeting time (about one third) should be considered for questions that arise during the interview. Questions that come to mind while the narrator is speaking should be asked right then.


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