Giving voice: Practical guidelines for implementing Oral Testimony projects
On the basis of the experience accumulated by the Panos Oral Testimony programme, this manual provides simple and practical guidelines for implementing an oral testimony project (also available in Spanish and French). It starts by presenting a definition for an oral testimony, and by looking at the relationship it can have with development.
The manual then looks then at how to develop an oral testimony project and at the different steps required: running a workshop, preparing and carrying out an interview, checking progress, and then working with the testimony.
It finishes by looking at the necessary evaluation of the whole project.
An Oral Testimony project
Oral testimonies refer to “the result of free-ranging, open-ended interviews around a series of topics”. The Panos Institute started using them as a way of generating and distributing information, raising awareness, and communicating the concerns of the marginalised sectors of society. A key aim has been to generate information for development. The narratives or testimonies that result from the interviews are seen as subjective, anecdotal, selective, partial and individual.
“But what some might call ‘flaws’ in the evidence are in fact strengths, for the way that people remember or describe something tells us what is important about it to them.” They show the complexity of individual experiences. Most important, they give a voice to those who are frequently marginalised by their gender, age, education or ethnic identity.
Planning an oral testimony project demands looking in detail at the aims and objectives, as well as at different practicalities (timeframe, budget). It is also necessary to look at the expected outputs, or at the way the testimonies are to be used, and the activities required to achieve all this. Particularly important is the definition and distribution of roles and responsibilities among those who will be involved. Selecting who the interviewers will be is also a key decision.
The selection needs to consider their age and sex, and also to choose between those who are closely associated with the narrators and with the local context and those who are not, considering that there are advantages in either case. Equally important is to select narrators: “ordinary” people of different ages, occupations, social backgrounds and experiences.
Next comes the process of planning the fieldwork, looking at the number of interviews which will be carried out and the implications this will have. This step needs to take a series of ethical issues into account, such as those resulting from the relationship between interviewer and narrator, and the potential power imbalance there may be. Another important issue is the way the results of the interview will be used: narrators need to be completely clear about the objectives of the project, and they need to approve that their testimonies can be used.
A special part of the project may be running a workshop. This can be useful to discuss the aims and objectives among all participants, to develop a framework of questions or to train interviewers. The manual provides detailed guidelines for such a workshop and its different sessions.
A next step is to prepare for the interview. After looking at the necessary equipment, it is also important to define what type of interview will take place (choosing between, for example, an individual life story, covering all aspects of someone’s life, and an issue-focused interview).
The guide looks then at possible topics for a life story (family life, working or social life), and then at specific ways of obtaining qualitative information, encouraging narrators with specific questions (“Why do you think this happened?” “What do you feel about this?”). Questions need to be prepared in advance: most of them should be open, encouraging the narrator to expand on an issue, while leading questions and “double-barrelled” ones should be avoided.
It is equally important to adopt an appropriate attitude during the interview. This means trying to be a good listener, and to be tactful and alert. It will be necessary to know the topic to be discussed, and to be familiar with the area and location. During the interview it is better not to take many notes and to record the whole testimony, and to “take time and relax” together with the narrator.
After the interview
The guide looks then at what happens after the interview, recommending to share all audiovisual records and documents with the local population. Attention must be given to the way the tapes are stored and documented, preferably having a written summary of all interviews. Important activities are the transcription and translations of all interviews. The guide finishes by focusing on the potential outputs of a project, and at the possible uses for each.