Great interviews start with great questions. We do professional oral history interviewing for families, as part of bigger history projects, and books and have done thousands, so we have learned a thing or two. Here are some lists and resources to get you started. Related: Why oral history is important
It is a good idea to go into an interview with a few questions prepared, and especially highlight any that you want to make sure you ask. However, often an ice breaker and a well-chosen question here and there will keep the conversation going. It is a positive sign when not all your questions are used in an interview (they rarely are).
Also, most interviewees appreciate receiving a few questions in advance. When sending, indicate that they are simply food for thought and the interview will not follow a rigid format.
If only one interview is done with a subject, ask a variety of questions on different topics. You might check out our top 10 list as a handy reference. If a series of interviews is envisioned, it’s helpful to focus on themes in each interview.
If you are interested in preserving life stories, our online course contains an excellent segment on oral history. You can complete this fun and engaging self-paced course over a weekend, or spread it out through a month. (Course access remains open for a year). Click here to preview.
Categories of Questions
- 10 Universal questions for anyone
- Childhood, school and hometown
- Relationship questions
- Family life as an adult
- Work and profession
- Spirituality, religion and values
- Questions for Veterans
10 universal interview questions
This is a great list for a stand-alone interview and is a handy grab-and-go cheat sheet. Some of the questions are repeated in other categories.
- Where were you born?
- Tell me about your childhood, what was the best part? Worst?
- Who was the most influential person in your life?
- What is your profession and why?
- What was the happiest time of your life?
- Tell about a time when you didn’t know if you would make it.
- Who is the love of your life and how did you meet?
- What is your passion (or a favorite hobby?)
- What is your favorite memory of me?
- What do you value most and why?
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Quick interviewing resources
Before we get continue with more questions, we want to make you aware of resources we have compiled to help you.
- If you would like help getting started with interviewing, sign up to receive our free 7-day interviewing mini course
- You can click here to get a free printable of our favorite questions
- Here is a landing page of our many interviewing resources
- In our professional work, we give a pretty booklet of questions to people in advance. Click here to get the booklet on Amazon.
- If you are writing a memoir or family history, hre is a landing page of writing tools
- Finally, we do this work professionally and offer gift certificates to interview you or a loved one. Click here to see our oral history services.
Childhood School and Hometown
- What is your earliest memory?
- Who are your parents? Where did they grow up?
- Where were you born?
- How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in your family?
- What were your chores?
- What is your hometown, and what was it like when you were young?
- Did you like school?
- What did you do for fun?
- How did you celebrate holidays?
- How did you celebrate holidays? Did your family have some special holiday traditions?
- What were your favorite meals?
- What were some memorable trips or outings?
- Can you think of any funny stories from your youth?
Family Life as an Adult
- Are you or have you ever been married?
- Do you have children?
- What are traditions you established in your family?
- What were your favorite trips or outings?
- Where do you live now and why?
- Who is your best friend?
- What was the happiest time in your adult life so far? Why?
- What was the hardest time? How did you get through it?
- What were the most important values you wanted to teach your family?
- How would you want your loved ones to remember you?
Editor’s note: This category is not limited to marriage or intimate partner. These questions can also apply to a great friend or business partner.
- How did you meet? (Note: This is such a simple question yet it is an effective ice breaker)
- What are some of your early and best memories together?
- Do you have a song, “our song?”
- Did you ever break up?
- Was there ever a time or times when you didn’t know if your relationship would make it?
- When and how did you know it was meant to be?
- What are the challenges in your relationship?
- How do you work through disagreements or differences?
- What are some of your best fun memories together?
- Do any trips or vacations together especially stand out?
- Can you think of a low point in your life when the other person was there for you?
- How do you keep your relationship strong?
- How are you alike, and how are you different?
- What do you admire most about the other person?
- What are the other person’s quirks or personality traits that you love?
- How are you better together than without the other person?
- Thinking of your relationship, what advice would you give a young person, such as your children?
- Can you think of long-standing inside jokes, or phrases you tell each other?
- What are some of the activities that you share, that maybe other people wouldn’t understand or that are unique to your relationship?
- What are your dreams for the future together?
- Would you say that this person is the love of your life?
Professional interviewer’s note: starting any interview by asking how two people met is a great ice breaker.
Work and Profession
- What was your first job?
- What is your profession or job?
- Do you like your job?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- How did you get into this line of work?
- Have you belonged to any civic or professional organizations?
- Have you ever been involved in politics or a political cause?
- What are you proudest of in your career?
- Who was your greatest mentor?
- What is your passion and how did you get started with it?
Spirituality, Religion and Values
- Have you ever experienced a miracle or an answer to a prayer?
- Do you believe in God?
- Do you associate with a religion or spiritual practice?
- If you attend religious services, where do you attend? Why do you choose worship with that particular congregation or community?
- What was the most powerful spiritual experience of your life?
- What are you proudest of in your life?
- What do you regret?
- If you could share with your family your most important values, what would you say?
- What experiences in your life that taught you these values?
Questions for Veterans
- Did you enlist or were you drafted?
- Why did you choose that branch of the service?
- When and where did you serve?
- What were your job duties?
- If you served during war time, did you see combat?
- If you saw combat, how did you feel when witnessing casualties and destruction?
- What kinds of friendships and camaraderie did you form while serving, and with whom?
- How did you stay in touch with family and friends back home?
- What did you do for recreation?
- What did you learn from your time in the military?
- What would you want to share with future generations your service, and your feelings about our country?
Engage professional services:
We do this work for a living in the following ways:
- We conduct oral history interviews in person
- We coach people to do the work yourself
- We regularly teach classes in person and online
- We write life stories
We love the questions provided by StoryCorps. Check out their collection here. They have some especially good questions to ask those who are experiencing a major illness.
Index of interviewing resources:
- You might want to check out our index page of interviewing resources.
- Want great audio? Read our article with 12 steps for the best audio and how to save it.
- Need to transcribe your interview? Click here for a detailed article on how to efficiently transcribe audio.
Free Interviewing Mini Course:
To motivate and help you do great interviews, we created a free 7-day interviewing mini course. Click on the link for a free download.
Questions Everyone Should Ask
Don't have regrets. Preserve a life story now with our all-time best questions. Interview a loved one or prompt your own personal history. Do it now, and it will be enough.