How to record and transcribe a life story

How to record and transcribe a life story

Capturing past lives is a worthy thing to do. And you can do it, too. I promise you it will be as rewarding for you as your interviewee.  Many of my clients my interviewees – tell me that I am the only person to whom they have revealed a ‘secret’.  Not all interviewees are like that, though.  Each interviewee is as individual as the story or stories they tell. You, the interviewer, will be privy to long-held secrets, revelations and wisdoms; some stories will be enlightening and some depressing, and some will be a balance of both.  Most of all, you will capture reflections from the perspective of one who has lived a life.  Their story will be ‘on the record’.



The first step in capturing a life story is to have a plan – as boring as that seems, a plan, or brief, will be the foundation on which everything else will take shape.  Make it simple. Your answers to the following questions will get the brief started: 

  1. Who do you want to record?
  2. Why do you want to capture their story?
  3. Do you intend to share it with family, friends, or the wider community?
  4. Will you be using the recording as a foundation or reference for a biography, a memoir, a school or university assignment, or other printed or broadcast material? 

The answers to these questions will shape the style, format and direction of your interview. 

The first thing you will need is a willing participant who understands your intentions. If you ask to interview someone and the response is ‘no thanks’, respect this decision and try Plan B… ask someone else.  Remember your interviewee can talk about any subject – including about another person. Regardless of how well you know the person, always make sure you have conveyed your intentions and get their consent before you switch on the recorder.

Once you have the go-ahead from your interviewee, confirm a mutual time to conduct the interview, giving as many details as possible, such as where you will conduct it, the length of the interview and the type of questions you will be asking.  Re-confirm a day or so before the interview.

Draft a list of questions.  You don’t have to follow them faithfully in your interview, as oral history interviews often take their own course, but if you are keen to know something, make sure you have it written down! Will the interview follow a chronological order, or will it be less structured? Make your questions open-ended – that is, let your interviewee describe his/her feelings, rather than just receive a yes or no answer.  There is little insight with a yes or no answer. For example, don’t ask “Did you fight with Paul, your brother?” Say instead, “Tell me about a fight you had with Paul, your brother.”

A little bit of research won’t go astray, either.  A quick name search on Google or a social media platform might gain you some insight into your interviewee (if you don’t know them that well).


Once you have your interviewee’s consent, drafted your questions and arranged the venue, it’s time to set up the interview. 

Record the interview in a place where your interviewee is comfortable, such as their own loungeroom, if you can.  Avoid cafes and public places – there is too much noise interference and they aren’t conducive to private, personal interaction. The room should be at a comfortable temperature (although if it is not your place you may not have control over that), and away from distractions, such as phones, people, and attention-seeking pets.  Ensure noisy appliances such as air-conditioners and radios are switched off. Be mindful that recording near an open window onto a busy street may interfere with the audio quality.

Have a glass of water handy for you and your interviewee. And don’t forget to always have a box of tissues close by – life stories are often dotted with tragic events and can open old wounds.  If you find your interviewee struggling, pause the recorder and take a break.  If your interviewer requests a halt to the recording or does not wish to continue, respect his/her wishes and end the interview.

How long should an interview go for?  Generally, you should allow 1-2 hours, but some flexibility might be required.  Long interviews can be tiring for both of you; thoughts and memories get tested and it is easy to go ‘off-track’.  If you haven’t captured everything you need in two hours, make a time to come back and record again. 


If you are a novice interviewer, you most likely won’t have the latest and greatest in audio recording technology. It is fine to use your smartphone, tablet or notebook to record interviews if it is for personal use or something to be shared within your family circle. Most devices come with audio recording capability, such as Voice Memos, and the sound quality is remarkably good. If you are tech-savvy you may want to download a recording application to your device.  I recommend Audacity,  this is freeware you can download to your tablet or notebook.  This nifty program allows you to post-edit, too. Voice Recorder, available from the App Store, is another option to Voice Memos on your mobile phone. My back-up device is a Sony IC digital recorder. It is basic, inexpensive, easy to use, and has excellent sound quality, too. There are many recording apps on the market – it might pay to do a little bit of research to find the one you like best.  Where possible, record in MP3 format. It is compressed but it will use less space than the larger .WAV files and will download much faster. 

Before starting your interview turn your mobile phone to Aeroplane Mode – and ask the same of your interviewee – you don’t want phone calls and random beeping interrupting your interview!

Make sure your device is fully charged and where possible, plug it into a power outlet. If you can, use a second device as a back-up (battery powered), and have spare batteries on hand.

You can conduct interviews over the phone or via the internet (e.g., Skype).  The same rules apply as for recording face-to-face.  If your interviewee is using a mobile phone, make sure they aren’t using the hands-free option as the audio playback quality is poor (even though they may sound okay at the time of your interview).

If you are interviewing face-to-face, place the device’s microphone towards, and as close to, the interviewee as possible. Placing a soft cloth, or piece of carpet under your device will absorb sounds from accidental bumps and ‘softens’ the audio.

The golden rule – do not interrupt or talk over your interviewee!  And, keep additional comments and/or judgements – outside your questions – to a minimum.  Remember, it isn’t your story (this time, at least). 

And please, please keep everything said between you and the interviewee C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T-I-A-L. You are trusting them to tell their story, they will be trusting you to keep it to yourself.


If you are going to do-it-all-yourself, you will need transcription software.  I use NCH’ s Express Scribe Pro version, but there is a free version you can download,  After 14 days you will be prompted to upgrade to the Pro version, but you can continue to use the free version. Whilst transcription foot-pedals and headphones are mandatory for professionals, you might find you can transcribe quite efficiently without them.  Express Scribe has hot-keys for fast-forwarding, rewinding, playback etc.  Do not expect it to be easy, especially if you are not a fast or accurate typist, and you will have to learn the commands.  Even experts can take several hours to transcribe one hour of audio!  In fact, the industry standard is 4-6 hours of transcription for every hour of audio – and that is by professionals.  That’s why it is a good idea to outsource your audio file for transcribing. 

It is also a good idea to format your transcript to a standard Q&A interview style.  If you need some help here, head to my website  Open a new Word document and save it using THE SAME NAME AS YOUR AUDIO FILE (e.g., smith_john_interview 1_May 2019), and save it in the same folder as your audio file.


You will need to transfer the audio from your digital device to the device that has your transcription software. If you are using an iPhone for recording you can airdrop the audio file to a cloud service (I have Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive and Microsoft OneDrive).  You won’t be able to email the audio recording – they are too large for email. From your audio file location, you will be prompted to “Open File with” – choose the transcription software option (e.g., Express Scribe). It might take a few minutes to load the audio file; the larger the file, the longer it takes.   

You can play, pause, stop, rewind and forward the audio in your transcription software as you type. You can also use the hot-keys to time stamp (copy time) on your transcript if you wish.


Make a copy of your voice recordings and transcripts and save these to a USB or back-up drive. You may want to create a new folder for this purpose (such as INTERVIEW RECORDINGS). Let a trusted source know about the recordings and transcripts – and where to access them, just in case something happens to you!  It is a nice idea to send a copy of the transcript and audio file to your interviewee, too.


Recording interviews and transcribing the audio isn’t complicated when you know how, but like everything, practice makes perfect.  Your time is valuable (isn’t everybody’s?) so if you really want to capture a life story, or a snippet of a life story, and these tips aren’t going to help… then engage a professional to do it for you.  It will save you lots of time and unnecessary angst.


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