Questions are part of our everyday life, and a way for us to get to know the world and learn more. In an Oral History interview there are different ways we use questions: first, to demonstrate our interest and preparedness; second, to guide the narrator; third, to encourage the narrator to open up their memory to us; and last but not least, to seek understanding and result in a meeting of minds.

How are questions used in Oral History? What types of questions are there? Which questions should we ask and when? 


  • Understand how to ask (and not ask) questions
  • Identify the types of questions to use in an interview

Time and Materials

90 mins 

  • Index cards
  • LCD projector
  • Speakers
  • Laptop/computer
  • A4 papers
  • Markers (different colors)
  • Interview: Fairuz al Houssain


Warm-up (10 minutes):

We distribute Handout 28: Globingo. On it are different categories of questions: specific, open-ended, follow-up, warm-up, motivating, and leading. With the worksheet in hand, each participant approaches fellow participants to think of examples for the types of questions and write them on the worksheet. They repeat this until they find a question for each category.  


Working in Paris (25 minutes):

We distribute Handout 29: Questions as a Research Tool and Handout 30: The DO’s and DON’Ts of Asking Questions to all participants. We divide the group into pairs, and ask each person to read one of the handouts and explain it to their partner in turn. Invite participants also to draw on the content we collected in the previous exercise. 


Plenary Discussion (15 minutes):

Bringing all participants together, we open the floor for reflections and questions that might have come up during the pair work. Also draw on the What-if questions from Handout 30: The DO’s and DON’Ts of Asking Questions and share ways of handling these situations. 


Individual Thinking (20 minutes): 

Sitting together, we are going to watch 15 minutes from an Oral History interview with Fairuz Houssain. We watch a bit from the beginning and the end of the interview. As the participants watch, we ask them to write down examples of which questions worked and which didn’t during the interview. 


Plenary Discussion (20 minutes): 

We discuss the reflections on the interview, drawing on what we learned about questions during the session.

Guiding Questions:

  • What would you consider the strengths of this interview?
  • What would you consider the weaknesses?  
  • What questions worked? What questions didn’t work? 
  • Why are follow-up questions so important in this interview? 
  • Was the narrator comfortable? Why?
  • Do you think there was a pre-interview meeting?

Notes and Tips for the Facilitator

  • This session relates to session Taking Care of Yourself and the Narrator, and Pre-Interview Meeting.
  • What-if questions and their possible responses:
    • What-if the person doesn’t know anything about what they are asked?
      • Skip to the next question.
    • What-if the person is shy or afraid?
      • Give them reassurance that what they have to share is important and valuable, re-explain to them why their input is valuable for future generations and to the project. Assure them that they can listen to the recording and can remove parts of it, or the whole thing.
    • What-if there is a specific topic they don’t want to talk about?
      • Move to another topic and think about how it could be approached or asked about in a different way. Return to the topic towards the end of the interview. 
    • What-if the person becomes upset while talking, and cries? What if they are too upset to continue?
      • Give them space and time to collect themselves. Offer them tissue paper or water. Tell them to take their time. If they are too upset to continue, ask them if they’d prefer to schedule another time to talk. 
    • What-if I can’t think of another question to ask?
      • Ask them if there were questions that were not asked in the interview that they would like to address. 
    • What-if they ask me about myself?
      • Respond briefly (what did you study, why are you doing this project, are you married, etc.), but after your response go directly into your next question to keep the flow going.
    • What-if….other what ifs? What other kinds of what-if questions can you think of?
  • Suggestions and comments on where to stop/start in Fairuz interview:

0:00 – 9:41 Start of the interview:

    • There’s no audio label or explanation of the purpose of the project.
    • The warm up questions are very broad and there are no follow-up questions to anything she’s said. For example, who is Adnan Abdallah? Who is Sheikh? What school did she go to? Who were her teachers? What happened in Tel al Zaatar?
    • There’s a big jump from warm-up questions to the questions about the  war and where she was during the war.
    • The same question is asked four times without addressing what narrator has already shared. Narrator is confused about what interviewer wants to know.
    • Interviewer interrupts narrator several times.

28:50: No evidence of a pre-interview. No follow-up questions.

37:00: No follow-up questions

1:06:00: End of interview:

    • Narrator profusely thanks interviewer for interview, hopes that what she has said is helpful, but interviewer does not thank narrator.
    • Interviewer asks narrator to sum up her experience in one word. This is very challenging for someone who has gone into so much detail. An oral history interview is meant to capture detail, not to sum up in one word/idea.

In general:

There are technical adjustments throughout the interview – of the camera, the sound, and stopping and starting the recording –  which remind the narrator that she is being recorded. A strong oral history interview supports a narrator’s exploration of their memory and their recollections of what happened in the past without distractions in the present (background noise, technical difficulties, telephone calls, background chitchat).

Sources and Further Reading

“Great Questions,” Story Corps (StoryCorps, Inc., 2003-2022), 

“Tell Me Your Stories,” An Oral History Curriculum for High School and Middle School Students ( Living Legacies Historical Foundation, 2012), 

Al-Hussein, Fairouz. “Rough 1. Interview by Ali Msarah. N.D.