According to Powell, Fisher and Wright (2005), all prominent interview protocols recognise that the most useful information obtained in forensic interviews is that which is given in a free narrative response. A ‘free narrative’ is obtained when interviewees are encouraged to provide an account of the event or situation in their own words, at their own pace, and without interruption. It should be obtained prior to asking any specific questions. Kebbell, Hatton and Johnson (2004) note that, for this questioning style, eyewitnesses with intellectual disability provide accounts ‘with accuracy rates broadly similar to those of the general population, although they may provide less information overall’.
Powell, Fisher and Wright (2005) describe the steps of narrative interviewing in the following way:
- Narrative interviewing generally proceeds with the interviewer asking a broad, open-ended question (for example, ‘Tell me everything you can remember about the event’)
- The interviewer then uses minimal, non-verbal encouragers (such as head nods, pauses, silence, ‘mmmm,’ ‘uh-huh’ and additional open-ended statements or questions) to steer the interviewee to provide additional narrative information (for example, ‘Tell me more about that.’ ‘What happened then?’ ’What else can you remember about that?’)
- Once the interviewee has reached the end of the story, they are usually guided back to parts of the narrative and given an opportunity for further recall (for example, ‘You said this ... can you tell me more about it?’).
The important aspect of the prompts used in narrative interviewing is that they are general. They focus the interviewee on a particular part of the account, but do not dictate or imply which specific information is required (Power, Fisher & Wright, 2005).
Powell, Fisher and Wright (2005) list the following benefits of encouraging a free narrative:
- Open-ended questions usually lead to more accurate responses than specific or closed questions. The heightened accuracy of responses to open-ended questions has been demonstrated by research
- Specific questions can lead interviewers to underestimate the witness’s language limitations, especially when a witness adopts strategies to conceal those limitations. For example, interviewees may repeat phrases or words used by the interviewer, provide stereotypical responses, or give affirmative answers to yes/no questions, even when they do not understand the question
- Open-ended questioning that is conducted at the interviewee’s own pace allows the interviewee some time to collect their thoughts and, consequently, promotes more elaborate memory retrieval. Excessive questioning is distracting for witnesses
- Open-ended questioning is less distracting for the interviewer. Open-ended questions allow the interviewer to focus their attention on listening intently to the answer, rather than focusing on formulating the next question.