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How to Ask Great Questions

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The key to getting a good story is asking good questions. If you don’t know what you want to ask, you can get some ideas from our lists.

The following question-writing guidelines will help you collect an interesting oral history from your narrator.

Two Kinds of Questions

Oral historians ask two kinds of questions when they are conducting interviews—closed questions and open questions.

1. Closed questions are important for finding out short pieces of factual information. Questions about dates, names, etc. are essential but they don’t make for very rich or exciting stories.

Examples of closed questions include:

  • What year were you born?
  • What were your parents’ names?
  • When did your family come to this country?
  • What high school did you attend?

2. Open questions, on the other hand, allow you to draw out your narrator’s memories, opinions, and points of view. These questions make the narrator’s story interesting and fun.

Open questions often begin with:

  • Why?
  • Can you describe...?
  • Tell me about...
  • What was that like?
  • How did you feel when...?
  • What were your expectations about...?
  • What challenges did you face when...?

The One-Two Punch Method

In order to record a well-balanced oral history, try using the one-two punch method. First you ask a closed question to learn a fact or get a specific answer. Then follow with an open-ended question to allow the narrator to say more about her response.

Here are some examples of pairs of closed questions and open-ended questions:

  • Closed: What was your mother’s name?
  • Open-ended: Describe your relationship with your mother when you were growing up.
  • Closed: When did you move to the new house?
  • Open-ended: How did you feel about moving to a new house and a new neighborhood?
  • Closed: When did you graduate from medical school?
  • Open-ended: What it was like being one of only three women in your medical school class?

Once you come up with a list of questions, put them in an order that makes sense to you. Are there some things that you need to know before you can ask about others? Decide which questions are more important or interesting to you and make sure you put them at the top of the list in case you run out of time.

Next: Question Sets

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