Today, I’m kicking off a blog series that discusses some strategies for completing a personal or family history project. If you’ve always been the person running the camera or writing down what happened at family holiday gatherings, and want to take your documenting to the next level, this series will show you some basic tools and techniques for making it happen.
But before we get started today, I want to ask you, do you know how your parents met?
Wouldn’t it be great to know some of your relatives’ most important life stories and have them preserved for future generations? You can become the “family storycatcher” – but the first step is getting the person you want to interview to agree to talk to you.
Excited, not anxious
A lot of people have no problem telling stories informally, but may clam up if you stick an audio recorder or video camera in their face without warning. There are a variety of reasons people, particularly older people, might feel self-conscious at the thought of a formal, recorded interview session.
- The pre-Baby Boom generation tends to be more modest than generations coming after them.
- They may believe their life has been ordinary and unexceptional.
- They may judge themselves harshly for mistakes they have made.
- They may have parts of their lives or experiences they do NOT want to discuss.
- They may think they won’t look or sound good on a recording.
- They may think (despite the fact that you’re asking for their stories) that nobody cares what they have to say.
You want your loved one to feel comfortable, relaxed and thoughtful as you interview them, so in order to get their permission to do the interview, you’ll want to create that sort of atmosphere around your family’s stories. If reminiscing isn’t a regular part of your time together, now is a good time to start.
You don’t have to make an epic announcement to introduce some personal storytelling time into your visits with your loved ones. You might consider “priming the pump” by directly soliciting their stories:
- After a visit to a location that holds a lot of memories for them (whether or not it looks the same now as it did “back in the day”).
- During or after a fun/meaningful family activity.
- Leading up to a milestone birthday or anniversary, especially if you’re planning a party around it.
- During a regular family visit, as an alternative to everyone sitting and staring at their phones or the TV after dinner.
If your loved one isn’t one to volunteer his or her stories, it can help to be encouraging and validating to them, in order to help them feel like they are doing you a favor – because they are! They’re sharing their accumulated life wisdom and helping you understand who you are and where you come from better.
Many times, appealing to their ego in a subtle (non-obvious!) way can be helpful. Remind them of how much they’ve accomplished and how grateful you are for their hard work and dedication. Related to this is appealing to a very human desire most of us to leave a legacy that truly represents who we were. Our stories are a part of us – and something that can be readily shared under the right conditions (which you are going to provide for them).
If you have children in your life who are also related to the loved one, they can be powerful allies in your quest to record his/her life story. Helping little ones understand their family has an appeal that get ordinarily very reticent folks to open up. Plus, who can resist a kid climbing into your lap and asking, “Tell me about the old days?”
Another issue that can cause anxiety for potential interviewees is not understanding the process you intend to use to record and share their stories. Clarity eases minds – you may first want to get comfortable enough with audio or video recording that you can explain it in a simplified way to someone.
Walk your potential interviewee through the entire process you want to use, without going into gory detail about each step. They may just want to know how much time it will take, if they want to get their hair styled before being videotaped, if they could share the end product with their friends, etc. Let them know you’ll interview them at a pace that’s comfortable for them, and take breaks whenever needed.
Another point to reinforce with your interviewee is that although this is your project, THEY are in control of what parts of their life story that they share with you and with all others. Explain that they will have final veto power on anything you record, and that yes, they can change their minds once something is recorded, or that something they originally didn’t want to talk about can be recorded later.
Once you have permission from your interviewee to conduct the interview, it’s time to get ready for the recording session – which will be the topic of the next post in this series!