No matter how well you know that person, it's a good idea to write down your questions in advance; this will help you remember what you want to talk about and keep the interview moving smoothly. Questions about memories and feelings work best: What was the happiest moment in your life? The saddest? What is your favorite memory from childhood? Would you sing the song your mother sang to you as a child? Who has been the biggest influence in your life? The kindest? What are you most proud of? What's your favorite memory of me? Is there something about you that you think nobody knows?
When you begin recording, start with the questions you most want answered. People can tire of talking after 40 minutes or so, and it's shocking how quickly that time can pass. Look your partner in the eyes—and listen. Engage. If they seem to light up at a particular topic, ask follow-up questions. Go with the flow—don't feel anchored to your question list. Nod your head to show that you're paying attention (but try not to interrupt with uh-huh's).
When people walk out of the StoryCorps recording booth, they clutch the CDs of their interview as if they were made of gold. They write in to tell us how they've played the recordings at reunions and memorial services, and how they've made copies to give to the whole family. I'm not surprised. As a public radio producer, I'm a passionate believer in the power of the spoken word. To me there's something of the soul contained in the voice. Far more than a photograph, it has, I think, the ability to capture a person's essence.
But whether you use a tape recorder or video camera—or even take down stories on paper—I'd encourage you to start now. Every single day people come up to me and say, "I had been meaning to interview my grandfather (or mother, or father...) for years but didn't get around to it, and now he's gone."
Soon after I did my first interview, back when I was 11, my grandmother, her sisters, and my grandfather passed away, in all-too-quick succession. At some point, I went looking for the cassette with their voices on it. I never found it. Today, at the age of 41, I've had a hand in recording thousands of interviews, but it's that one crummy recording I long to hear again. So once you've got your tape in hand, guard it with your life.
And one more thing: When you're setting up the recording area, don't forget the tissues. Often the tears start flowing the minute the recording session begins.
Dave Isay's book, Listening Is an Act of Love (The Penguin Press), available in bookstores now, is a compilation of oral histories from the StoryCorps archives.
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