4 Reasons Video Beats Audio For Oral History

When I tell people my business involves interviewing people on video and making it into a DVD life story, most people say “what a fantastic idea!”

They then often speak of someone they have always wanted to interview in their family, but have never got around to doing it – which is actually a major reason I started my business – for those people who want the finished product, but don’t find the time to do it themselves.

Despite this enthusiasm, however, many people have reservations about the use of video as opposed to audio recordings. They either cringe about the idea of themselves being on video, or they express a fear that their intended interviewee won’t want to talk on video. I’ve even found most oral history organisations I’ve looked up on the internet, when discussing oral history interviews, still refer to audio interviews (this may have changed recently).

It’s like there’s an inbuilt fear within most people of being recorded on video. Some have a fear of being recorded full stop, but I find there are many more who fear what they might look like on video, or “what if I say something stupid?” (even if not verbalised, it’s a thought that goes through their head).

Ever since getting my first video camera 10 years ago to go to the Sydney Olympics, I have used it to interview family members and other interesting people. Basically, for a start, I interviewed anyone who said yes. Often the family members I really wanted to interview were the most camera shy – though I have now succeeded in capturing most of those people on camera.

So why do I believe video/dvd recording of oral history is superior to audio recordings?

1. You get to see the person’s face, as well as hear their voice – and it’s not only their face, it’s their gestures, seeing them laugh, getting to see all the little visual quirks that make them them. Audio captures some of this, but video just makes it so much richer.

2. It’s easier & more likely to be accessed – Give a family a DVD of their grandmother’s life story and they can immediately stick it in the DVD player or computer and watch it. Give them a CD or mp3 and I bet you they don’t sit down immediately and listen to it. And if they do, I bet they don’t just sit there and close their eyes to concentrate on every word. As there is no visual, it’s much easier for people to think they can listen and do housework, read the paper and so on at the same time. In the process, they miss half the story. In my experience DVDs get watched till the end and are much more likely to be brought out for family and friends to have “a quick look”.

3. DVD/Video holds the viewers attention – This is a continuation of the above in many ways. Having both visual and audio stimulus, a DVD life story/personal video biography is much more likely to hold the viewers attention. There are many studies to show that certain people are more audio- orientated, others are more visual and some are more kinesthetic (hands on). DVDs provide for both the auditory and the visual-dominated people, thus making it more likely that the interview will grab and hold their attention.

4. It really feels like the person is in the room with you – When my Grandad died, many family members wanted copies of the interviews I’d done with him. Back then, with Video 8 and no hard drive, I had to play the interviews into the TV and record them in real time. When I was setting this up, there was a room full of mourning relatives, so I apologised to them if it was upsetting them to see Grandad on the screen. I asked would they like me to turn the screen off once I set it up, but most said to just leave it on and they’d see how they went with it. When I walked in 10 minutes later, I found the whole room virtually silent, glued to the TV. One of them said, with a sense of wonder and excitement in their voice “It’s like he’s actually here in the room with us”. And the rest agreed. That is something audio just can’t quite capture.

So, yes, video cameras are slightly more intrusive to the interviewee than a mini audio recorder. But over the years I’ve stuck to my guns and been able to persuade even the most reluctant family members – the ones I never thought would do it – to be interviewed on video. And now I have that captured forever for all the family & generations to come.

What I find is once it’s been agreed upon, the set up’s been done (as quickly and with as little fuss as possible!), as soon as we get into conversation, the person very quickly forgets about the camera. As I tell all my interviewees, it’s just like sitting down for a cuppa and having a chat – just with a video going in the background (and maybe a light or two ; )

One trick I used with my Dad was to just ask him to do 10 questions with me – for my daughter (his only grandchild at the time – a little emotional blackmail!). I truly was only going to do 10 questions, but after 45 minutes I had to change the tape. I apologised to Dad, saying it had gone a bit longer than planned. And you know what he said? “Oh, it’s ok. I probably wouldn’t be able to get to sleep now anyway”. In other words, he had found he was quite enjoying the experience!!

So in my opinion it’s worth recording oral history on video rather than just audio. It may take some extra convincing on your part, but the final product is superior. And with computers these days you can always extract the audio separately and put it on a separate CD if you want an audio version to listen to in the car. You can’t create visuals though if you haven’t recorded them in the first place!

Of course if the interviewee is absolutely adamant they will not be videoed, but are happy to be audio recorded, absolutely still do it. Oral life stories are still amazing and incredibly valuable. I’m just saying, if at all possible, opt for video first and purely oral recordings as a last resort.

I plan to write some tips and hints in my coming blogs, but if you have any questions, please let me know.

(Update: As of Nov 14th 2013 please contact me via email at louise@15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com, visit the 15 Minute Power Plays With Your Kids ebook Facebook or Twitter Page or visit the website www.15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com If you happen to stumble across this post and it’s NOT because I’ve linked to it from my book, pop over and say hi anyway :-). Please  DO NOT go to my previous website at www.itsmylifeproject.com.au as it has been hacked)

Keep Smiling




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