photo of old woman sitting while talking with another woman

Talking to Relatives: The Family History Interview

by | 23 Oct 2022

10 Tips for Digging Up Great Family Stories

The best family history interview should be a conversation or storytelling session rather than a Q&A. Keeping the discussion breezy can be especially difficult when a video camera or difficult topics make your storyteller uncomfortable. The next time you’re conducting an oral history interview, try these tips for making the conversation flow.

1.  Stay Engaged

People are generally much happier sharing their stories when they feel that you are genuinely interested in what they say. Maintain eye contact and listen as they speak. Show interest by leaning toward the interviewee, nodding, using appropriate facial expressions, and occasionally asking relevant follow-up questions.

2.  Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. The whole point of an interview is to allow your family member to tell their story. When they pause, they may just be thinking or remembering; it can take time to recall memories of events they haven’t thought of in years. Instead of jumping in with a new question each time there is a pause, give your interviewee a little time to see if they have anything else to add before moving on.

3.  Ask the Right Questions

The best family history interview stories come from journalistic questions—when, why, how, where, and what—to avoid “yes” or “no” responses. Along with that, you may also want to ask how the event made your interviewee feel. Emotions are a big part of your family’s story and something you won’t generally learn from documents and records.

When you ask a series of questions at once, the interviewee will likely only answer the first or the last. Try keeping your questions brief, and present them one at a time.

4.  Follow up on the Good Stuff

Expand on events and stories brought up during the interview with additional questions to discover what the person did and what they thought and felt about their actions. Also, try to establish where your interviewee was and what they were doing at the time of the event. This approach helps to uncover how much of their story is first-hand knowledge versus stories heard from others.

5.  Be Yourself

If you’re relaxed, it’s more likely your interview subject will relax. Don’t worry about fumbling a few questions or “doing it right.” A few blips will only show that you’re human and help to put your subject at ease.

6.  Don’t Interrupt

Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a new question or want to clarify a point. Instead, jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask them later. Even if your subject gets off track, let them finish their story before steering them back on topic.

7.  Get Personal

Some of the best stories come from personal questions—questions that are slightly embarrassing or sensitive, or elicit laughter or tears. The thrill of first love, an embarrassing memory from school, and the feelings experienced heading off to war. These questions can be hard to ask, but they are also the ones that will give you details you’ve probably never heard before. However, use these questions after establishing a rapport with your interviewee.

8.  Don’t Challenge

Don’t challenge stories or accounts that you think might be inaccurate. Your interviewee may have a different perspective, and a challenge may put them on the defensive or even shut down the interview. Everyone wants to be heard and believed. If you know of or have heard another version of the story, you may try a tactful mention and allow your relative to respond.

9.  Bring Props

It’s incredible how many memories and stories an old photograph can elicit, so imagine the stories an entire album or home movie may bring to mind. Look for anything that might help jog your interviewee’s memory of places, events, and people. If you don’t have such props, ask your interviewee if they have any family photos or heirlooms to show you. When discussing photographs, ask questions such as When and where was the photo taken? What was the reason or event that prompted the photo? Who are the people? For family heirlooms, ask questions such as: How was it used? Who made or purchased it? Who gave it to them? Also, ask if any stories or special memories are associated with the object or photo.

10.  Try a Group Approach

Some of the best stories come when a group of relatives, old friends, or military buddies get together and start reminiscing, so use this to your advantage. Set up a video camera in the corner of the dining room at Thanksgiving or set up a group of chairs at the family reunion. Then ask a question or two to start the stories and let it build from there.

Family history interviews should be considered an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time gig. This doesn’t mean you need to schedule a formal oral history interview once a year, but try to use every opportunity to ask questions and gather new stories. You’ll likely learn something new every time you ask. I still do, and I’ve been asking questions of my relatives for over forty years!

©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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