9 Tips for Interviewing Relatives
My grandma June was a lively, intelligent woman who loved to share memories of her past. Back in college as I worked on my degree in Family History, I came to her house one day to interview her about her life history. She told wonderful stories about her childhood, her parents and siblings. I am so glad I captured everything on a cassette tape and was required to transcribe it for my project. I did this with several other relatives as well to fulfill various assignments.
Many years later, my daughter needed to interview someone about what it was like to live during World War II. I immediately thought of Grandma June, who was still very active, both physically and mentally. However, when I called her, I was surprised to hear her say, “I don’t remember.”
Just a few weeks ago, a client suggested we interview his great-aunt, who was in her nineties and “sharp as a tack.” A few days later, he let us know that when he called to tell her we’d be interviewing her, he discovered that she was suffering from dementia. We just never know how much longer our relatives will be able to share precious memories of their past and their ancestors. It is so important to take advantage of every opportunity to listen to and record our loved ones for their posterity.
Here are nine tips to make it an enjoyable activity for you and your family:
- Seize the Moment. Most of us have smartphones with voice and video recorders built in. You never know when your relative will start sharing a memory. Be ready to record at any time and you will capture some precious gems.
- Plan an Evening. My husband and I have made it a point to invite our parents over once a month for an evening of questions and answers about their lives. We have a nice digital voice recorder for these events, and we send the questions ahead of time so they can think about their answers and bring along any memorabilia they want to share. Our children love hearing their grandparents talk about their courtship, their favorite pets, their first jobs, and the houses they’ve lived in.
- Capture the Video. Once our loved ones pass on, or even before they do, it is wonderful to watch their expressions and gestures as they share their life stories, perhaps shedding tears or breaking into joyful smiles.
- Upload and Share. Many family history and social media websites allow you to upload these precious audio and video files and attach them to your ancestors’ profiles. They add a wonderful dimension that goes beyond documents and written stories and inspires greater love for your relative. Young people are more likely to catch and share these stories if they can access them through the internet.
- Let Them Do the Talking. The skillful family history interviewer will say as little as possible and allow their relative to take center stage. Don’t be afraid to let them pause and think before answering a question. Encourage them with your expressions rather than frequent verbal cues. Allow them to ramble and follow their stream of memories. They may end up sharing things you had not ever thought to ask about.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions. Ones that cannot be answered with a yes or a no. “How did you spend your Saturday afternoons as a child?” “What was it like to live without the internet and cell phones?” “What do you remember about your grandparents?”
- Songs and Poems. Does your relative have favorite songs they are always singing? A favorite poem that they memorized as a child? Invite them to sing or recite! You’ll be glad you did.
- Photos and Memorabilia. Prepare beforehand by gathering photos and scrapbooks that will trigger memories and fuel the narrative. Keep a pencil handy to label those photos if you haven’t already!
- Break it Down. These days, we are accustomed to scrolling through social media, flipping through magazines, and channel surfing. We are more likely to catch a story and re-share it if it is relatively short. Once you have your interview, try to break it down into smaller chunks that can be labeled “First Date,” or “Saturday Afternoons.” Audio and video editing software make this process fairly simple. Or, start and stop your audio and video recorder with each question you ask.
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we love to help you tell your family’s story. If that means calling and interviewing your relatives for you (at your request only!), we are happy to do it. We have written some pretty amazing family histories over the years, and we work with high quality book companies to get them published for you. Let us know how we can help! Contact us today for a free consultation.