Do-It-Yourself Guide

Do-It-Yourself Instruction Guide


1. Pick a Storyteller

Start by deciding whom you want to interview. A beloved relative? A mentor? A local hero? Some people may be hesitant to participate; emphasize how important that person’s story is to you and how you think it is worth preserving for the future. Let him or her know that you would be honored to record the conversation.

2. Create a List of Questions

Preparing ahead of time will greatly improve the quality of your interview. Think about what you would like to learn from your partner, then make a list of 5-10 questions. Here are some questions that have led to great conversations:

  • What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in life?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Is there something about yourself that you think no one knows?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • More great questions

3. Purchase or Borrow Recording Equipment

The recording equipment can be as simple as a tape recorder, a video camera, or a computer. You can find both basic and more sophisticated recording equipment at your local electronics store or for purchase online. You might even borrow equipment from a friend or relative. Whatever recording equipment you choose, we strongly suggest that you practice with it before your interview.

4. Choose an Interview Location

Pick the quietest place possible. A carpeted room is best. Be sure to turn the volume off on any TV, radio, or stereo. Close the door and listen for anything else that’s making noise: buzzing fluorescent lights, ticking clocks, air conditioners, etc. If possible, turn them off or move them out of the room. Avoid kitchens, which have reflective surfaces and noisy appliances. Listen for noise during the interview as well. If your storyteller fiddles with a necklace, for example, feel free to tell him or her if the microphone picks up the sound. Make the space as peaceful as possible by turning the lights low.

5. Set Up and Test the Equipment

Set up your equipment as early as possible before the interview and make sure you know how to use it. Once the interview starts you will be able to focus on your interview partner and not the equipment. Before the interview, record your storyteller answering a few throwaway questions, such as, “Tell me what you had for breakfast.” Stop, rewind, and listen to the sample recording to determine if everything is working. Remember to press RECORD again when you begin the actual interview.

A few tips for better audio quality:

  • If possible, wear headphones when recording. Your headphones are your “ears” for the interview; they tell you exactly what you’ll hear on your finished recording.
  • If possible, use a microphone when recording. Always hold the microphone in your hand, moving it between you and your storyteller. Hold the microphone about 7 inches from your storyteller’s mouth. If you’re using an internal microphone on a camera, set up the camera just far enough away to keep the picture in focus.
  • Be careful of “mic-handling” noise. That’s the low, rumbling sound you hear when you move the microphone in your hands. Use a light touch when handling the microphone, and minimize movement.

6. Begin the Conversation

Start the interview by stating your name, your age, the date, and the location of the interview. For example, “My name is Marissa Martinez. I’m forty years old. The date is November 28, 2008, and I’m sitting with my grandfather, Frank Jackson, in his living room in Hamilton, Missouri.” Then ask your storyteller to do the same.

Remember, the questions you prepared in advance are just suggestions. Trust your instincts and ask questions in whatever order feels right. If something interests you, ask more about it. Sometimes your storyteller may need to know that it’s okay to talk about a certain topic. Grant permission by saying, “Tell me more.” Take breaks if your storyteller needs them. Avoid saying “uh huh” or interrupting. Instead, use visual cues like nodding your head to encourage the storyteller to keep going.

7. Keep the Conversation Flowing

  • Listen closely. Look your storyteller in the eyes. Nod your head. Smile. Stay engaged.
  • Stick with the good stuff. Try to keep to the topics that move you. If the current topic isn’t what you wanted to put on tape, gently steer the conversation in another direction.
  • Ask emotional questions. Asking‚ “How does this make you feel?” often elicits interesting responses. Don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Respect your subject. If there is a topic that your interview partner does not want to talk about, respect his or her wishes and move on.
  • Take notes during the interview. Write down questions or stories you might want to return to later.
  • Be curious and honest, and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

8. Wrap It Up

Before you turn off the recorder, ask the storyteller if there is anything else that he or she wants to talk about. Then make sure to thank the person; opening up can be difficult. Express your gratitude, and let him or her know that it was a privilege to listen to the story. Finally, hit STOP on your recorder.

9. Preserve and Share the Conversation

Start your own archive at home by labeling the interview properly and storing it in a safe place. (At this time, StoryCorps only has the capacity to archive interviews recorded with StoryCorps equipment.) The recording is likely to become a treasured family heirloom. If you can, make copies of the interview to distribute to friends and relatives. Invite loved ones to your home to listen to the recording and talk about it. Bring it to special occasions, reunions, or memorials.

Each week, the StoryCorps podcast shares these unscripted conversations, revealing the wisdom, courage, and poetry in the words of people you might not notice walking down the street.