Questions that unlock doors

    | November 23, 2009

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    Last week’s Radio Resource section looked at the “right” and “wrong” questions to ask when collecting an oral testimony ( This week, we offer more insights on good interviewing techniques that “unlock doors” to the storyteller’s experience and memories. Both of these resources are adapted from The Panos Institute of West Africa’s guide to using oral testimonies, entitled Heeding the Voiceless. To view the entire guide online, go to: You may wish to try these types of questions when profiling an individual or seeking to explore the subtleties of particularly complex or sensitive social issues.

    Main key question: If you had all the power in the world to make one change in your life, what would it be?

    Other potential key questions:
    -Why this change?
    -What is it about your present situation that made you call out this change?
    -What have you tried to do to bring about this change?
    -How did you feel, what did you experience in doing this?
    -If people who know you were to describe how you feel about your situation, what do you think they would say?
    -Why do you think they would say this? Please explain.
    -Would you agree with them? Please explain.

    -Whom do you live with?
    -If living alone or with people other than parents, what are the circumstances/reasons for the situation?
    -Which person has had the greatest influence in your life?
    -What kind of an influence? What difference has s/he made in your life?
    -Why do you think that s/he was able to influence you so much?
    -Have there been other major influences? Who? What?
    -What is your most memorable experience?
    -What happened?
    -Why do you think you remember this most?
    -What difference has it made to your life?
    -Any other memorable experiences?
    -What would you say is the main lesson you have learned in life?
    -How do you feel about your community? Do you feel that your future belongs there? Please tell us more.
    -What are some of the experiences you want to share with others?
    -Is there any other information you would wish to share? Please, we are listening.