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Oral Histories: Dos and Don’ts

September 20, 2018 • Ashley Mullenix

Oral histories are an important foundational element for many companies who work with History Factory. Whether they “fill in the blanks” in a company archive or help build out a company anniversary program, oral histories provide a unique and often irreplaceable perspective. As we noted in an excerpt from CEO Bruce Weindruch’s book in a post from a few years ago, oral histories “act like a safety net for all of the valuable information stored in your company’s collective past.” Oral histories also capture unique vantage points—we’re often amazed at how interviews about a specific event yield different perspectives on the event. It’s like viewing a diamond: Every angle shines a different light, a new perspective.

Here’s a short list of things to do, and not do, as you construct an oral history program.

Oral History Must-Dos

1. Know who you’re talking to.

Seems obvious, really, but it’s surprising how many interviewers turn up to talk with oral history candidates without doing much research on the person, what their role was, etc. It’s about common courtesy, but it also helps you stay focused and efficient. Better to spend the time on recollections than getting acquainted with information that’s already at your disposal.

2. Give the interviewee a heads-up.

Share the topics you’d like to discuss beforehand. This gives the interviewee time to collect their thoughts without the panic of a camera rolling. The interviewee shouldn’t read from a script, but having time to think through subjects, recall details and make connections to other important milestones will make for a more productive interview. In this regard, it’s important to talk to the interviewee beforehand—on the phone, in the makeup chair, etc. Give them a clear overview of what will happen during the interview, make some personal connections, talk about lighthearted subjects and build an easy rapport before the cameras start rolling.

3. Make it fun and conversational.

Without question, the best oral histories are those where the interviewee is relaxed and enjoying their walk down memory lane. Keeping it somewhat lighthearted is worthwhile if it encourages the interviewee to open up.

4. Focus on impressions, recollections and perspectives.

Remember that an oral history is effectively someone’s testimony about their own experiences. People viewing the transcript later should not rely on it as absolute fact. Memories can be faulty. This is perspective on an event, not the place where you want to discover an exact date or financial figures.

5. Know how you’ll use the insights.

Running a series of oral history interviews for the sake of having captured the insights is akin to gathering customer data for the sake of having some numbers to kick around. Have an idea how the oral histories can be used. Perhaps they’re the foundation for a company history book, footage for a video documentary, or part of a keynote speech at a sales conference or other internal meeting. Although you won’t know what may crop up during the interviews, you should have an idea of how you can use the insights to help achieve your business objectives.

Oral History Don’ts

1. Don’t focus only on senior leadership.

Too often, companies undertaking an oral history program focus on those leading the organization and miss out on valuable insights from lower-level employees. Avoid this tunnel vision. Especially with major company events or transitions, getting the “shop-floor” perspective is invaluable to understanding how management was perceived and corroborating the views of various leaders.

2. Don’t have an audience.

The best connections between an oral historian and an interview subject happen in an intimate atmosphere. When additional people beyond the film crew are in the room, the subject may feel more pressure to produce perfect sound bites rather than relaxing and enjoying the conversation. Having handlers or additional project managers in the room can be distracting, especially if they interrupt with questions, ask for redos, or correct someone’s memory.

3. Don’t steer the interviewee.

Avoid prejudicing the interviewee. Less experienced interviewers often fall prey to steering the interviewee, particularly around controversial topics or events and based on what the interviewer may have learned in previous discussions. Keep an open mind and stick to the script, but probe as needed and view your role as that of an unbiased reporter. As the Oral History Association put it: “All those who use oral history interviews should strive for intellectual honesty and the best application of the skills of their discipline. They should avoid stereotypes, misrepresentations and manipulations of the narrator’s words.”

4. Don’t shortchange the time.

Most oral history interviews take about two hours, so if you have a flight to catch or another appointment, ensure you allow sufficient time—especially since a good interview may require more than the allotted time. Ensure that the interviewee can expound on topics without feeling hurried.

5. Don’t strive for the perfect sound bite.

It’s common for interviewees to want to redo a section to get better sound bites using the latest business lingo. These interviews should be heartfelt and off the cuff—anything that sounds too rehearsed or straight from the PR department won’t come across as authentic. Not to mention, retaping breaks the flow of conversation. Oral histories can amplify PR efforts but shouldn’t stand in place of them. Sometimes it’s tough to get leadership out of the mindset of producing perfect sound bites, but it is always worthwhile to have an often-heard principle explained in a different and meaningful way.


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