Questions, Questions & More Questions - Crafting the Questions for the LifeStory
You've gathered all these facts, photos and information for the LifeStory interview. Now it's time to craft the questions that will accomplish the goals you have for the interview. While digesting this vast amount of information seems like eating an elephant, remember the advice of the old African saying: "Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One piece at a time." Piece #1 - Remember the Format You Chose - In a previous blog post, we discussed the different formats you could use for your interview: Category of events (education history, work history, location of home history, etc.) and chronologically (in order of when the life events happened) are two examples. I prefer to conduct my LifeStory interviews chronologically. People seem to remember more if they are asked questions in the order in which the events occurred. I also find it easier to pace the interview based on how they are "feeling" while discussing that period of their lives.
If your format for the interview is chronological, be sure to formulate your questions based on how the interviewee thought at that time of their life. I learned this when being trained to interview Holocaust survivors http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi/. For example, if I am interviewing someone who was a six-year-old child at the time of the Holocaust, I wouldn't ask them about the philosophy of the German soldiers in the camps at that time. I'd ask in a way that a child was thinking at that time. Questions involving the senses are good. For instance, "What sounds do you remember from the camp?" "Describe any unusual smells you remember from the ghetto." Or because of their height at the time, "What did the boots of the soldiers look like to you?"
Piece #2 - Not Just the Facts, But the Feelings, too - The interviewees are expecting you to ask questions that will uncover the facts of their lives. You must include them to build the foundation of the LifeStory. What makes the stories have decor and flavor, however, are the questions that go beyond the facts. To add decor and flavor to the LifeStory, ask questions about feelings and thoughts as well. For instance, "How did it feel to win that first place medal in that contest?" Or "What was the first thing that went through your mind when the doctor said you had cancer?"
Piece #3 - The Question They've Never Been Asked - One of my goals in the LifeStories I conduct is to bring out the essence of the interviewee...to find out what they are really like deep down inside. To do this, I include a few questions they've probably never been asked before. I do this not to throw them off-guard. I do this to make them think and reflect before they answer. Here are a couple of examples: "What was the most valuable lesson your father taught you, whether directly or indirectly, about being a parent?" Then follow the answer with, "Have you passed that down to your kids and, if so, how have you done that?" Coming up with these questions takes some thought and creativity, but you're up to the task!
Bonus Piece #4- Do Not Let the Interviewee See the Questions Before the Interview - The reason for this is simple. When they know the questions in advance, the answers look rehearsed and scripted. I prefer the knee-jerk response to my LifeStory questions. I believe that policy helps bring out that essence of the individual I am looking for.
There are many other pieces to crafting good questions, but here's the most important thing for you to remember: Every question you ask will be a good one if you approach the task with sincere interest and genuine curiosity.
My next blog post will cover how to ask the questions you've just crafted.