How to get our elders talking

I’ve been researching interview techniques and conversation tips for over a year now. I’ve then applied them to a range of podcast interviews, and tested them out on the older members of our community. So, what have I concluded?

Test your recording equipment first, ensure your subject is safe and comfortable, highlight the most important questions, personalise the questions to give answer prompts if needed, follow where their story takes you, and most importantly, really listen to their tale.

Before the interview

  • Prepare for the interview. Highlight key questions, and change the order they are asked if necessary. Add in names, times, and personal details to the set questions.

  • Highlight or bold key terms and questions.

  • Print out the questions if you can. If you are reading on your device, take the time to jot down which questions are the most important.

  • Have your interview space, recording device, headphones, and questions ready in advance.

  • Test your equipment before the interview.

  • Set up the interview. Have a quiet chat, get them a drink.

  • Interview in a quiet, carpeted room such as their lounge room, a separate space in their bedroom, or another space where they feel at home.

  • Everyone should be feeling comfortable and safe.

  • Have visual aids, such as photographs, newspaper clippings, or family trees at hand as these will aid story-telling.

  • Consider other aids, such as music, videos, sporting trophies, art, favourite food or items from nature.

  • Interviewing is reciprocal. Share something of yourself first.

  • Tell them your "why". The purpose of your interview, what you want to know, and what you would like to achieve.

  • Ask them for input on the interview. This may unlock any hidden motivations.

  • What do they want asked? What are they getting out of it?

During the interview

  • Use set questions as a guide, not a set script that must be followed.

  • A number one tip? Follow the story, not the script.

  • Listen with your ears and your heart.

  • Listen more, talk less (this one is tricky for me as I am such a chatterbox!).

  • Once you stop listening, they will know.

  • Stay engaged. Or if you’ve lost concentration, then you need to stop for a break.

  • Keep up the eye contact. Don't look down at your questions too much. Have key questions highlighted so you can quickly glance down.

  • Ask open-ended questions: Who, What, Why, When, How.

  • Watch their body language.

  • Your subject is elderly and possibly sick. You will find they tire very quickly during the interview, so aim for a 20-minute interview before you take a break. This may be the only interview for the day, which means you can start fresh with new questions on a different occasion.

  • During the interview, glance at your device and check you are recording.

  • We need to hear them. Clearly and loudly. Ensure the device is placed between the two of you and is not moving. Make sure you are close to the device so the microphone works.

  • Ensure they are comfortable with the headphones. Make sure everyone is speaking relatively loudly.

  • Watch for signs of emotional distress. You know your loved one. Continue, re-direct, pause or stop.

Final thoughts

  • Your subject may not want to talk about certain topics. Ensuring they are in a safe space will help them to open up, as will active listening, compassion and a true interest in their life. Ultimately, it is their story to share and that needs to be respected.

  • Record as much or as little as you can. Something is better than nothing.

  • It doesn't have to be perfect, just start recording.