Sriya Reddy is a senior majoring in Journalism, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, and History. She is a Research Assistant for Voices of SMU, Engagement Editor for the Daily Campus, and an intern for The Dallas Morning News
When I first joined the Voices of SMU team, I was a sophomore just beginning to dip my toes into research. I wanted to be a part of something that I am passionate about. The project was a perfect combination of everything I was interested in. I was ecstatic to be a part of documenting history and diversifying the SMU archives. After being a part of Voices of SMU for almost two years, my favorite part is simply listening to participant’s stories.
Voices of SMU has helped me develop my interviewing skills. As a journalism major, interviewing is a huge part of my career path. However, oral history delves deeper into interviews because we explore life histories. Each interview gives me an understanding of not only different perspectives on the SMU experience, but also the individual themselves. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the last few years that have bettered my interviews.
1. Engage in conversation with them before (and after) the interview
I try not to jump straight into interviews. Especially as we transitioned to Zoom interviews, jumping straight in can be intimidating. Asking a few questions and making small talk lightens the mood and helps make both you and the interviewee more comfortable.
2. Explain the Purpose of the Interview
This is very important because it encourages the interviewee to share detailed stories. The purpose of Voices of SMU is to bring the perspective of alumni of color to the archives. Interviewees often apologize for talking a lot. However, if you let them know that we want to hear as much as they are willing to share, the interviewees will feel more at ease in telling their stories.
3. Use your questions as a guide not a script
For the Voices of SMU project, we have a standard set of questions that range from childhood to post-grad life. This list of questions is great and helps us, the interviewers, feel more prepared. We can even add to the list with personalized questions based on our research. Although the list is useful, it is not something interviewers have to stick to. Sometimes questions make more sense in a different order, or they answer multiple questions in one. It’s helpful to remember that your list of questions is not set in stone.
4. Embrace the silence after the participant’s response
Many interviewees take a few seconds to pause after they answer questions. This does not always mean that they are finished with their responses. Sometimes, they are gathering their thoughts or reliving memories. Giving them a few more seconds to finish their answer before you ask the next question can lead to great stories. Pay attention to body language to see if a participant is finished talking or simply thinking. When I am not sure, I count to three in my head just in case they want to say more.
5. Listen to them and ask follow up questions
A mistake I used to make a lot while interviewing was not listening. Instead I was focused on the next question on my list. After a while I learned that some of the best questions to ask are follow up questions. Asking about anything that needs further elaboration can take interviews to the next level.
6. Establish a timeline
Since Voices of SMU is a history project, establishing a timeline gives a lot of context to each interview. Experiences by themselves are great, but years can show historians the setting, which elevates every story. Asking questions like “Can you clarify what year that happened?” or “What years did you attend SMU?” not only helps the interviewer keep track of certain events, but also anyone who engages with the interview in the future.
7. Always end with “Is there anything that I missed that you want to discuss?”
Sometimes our questions don’t hit all the right spots, and that is okay. Asking this question gives an opportunity to the interviewee to bring up any more topics. You never know what extra answers you’ll get.