If you’re fortunate enough to have an older person in your life—whether it’s a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or even a family friend—know that you basically have access to a living part of history. As a child, you may not have been interested in hearing their stories from the past, but as an adult, it’s much easier to see the value on learning from their experiences. Perhaps you’ve even talked about sitting down and recording them telling their stories or answering questions about what their life was like growing up. Well, we’re all stuck at home for the foreseeable future, so now is that time.
Schedule a time for a call
Usually, the biggest impediment to having these conversations with family members is finding the time. That’s why you should take advantage of everyone being at home right now. Of course you’re busy (and they may be too) but it’ll at least be easier to schedule a time to talk. That’s the first step: Give the person a call and set up a time for a conversation.
You might be better off using the term “conversation” as opposed to “interview” because some people may feel under pressure in an “interview,” or may not even agree to one in the first place. But regardless of terminology, definitely let the person know that you’ll be recording your conversation, and the point of doing so is to preserve and possibly transcribe their piece of family history for future generations. Make sure you both block off enough time for the call so you’re not rushed, but you don’t necessarily have to tell the person that they have two or three hours to talk because that will probably seem daunting.
Have some questions ready
Asking a broad question like “Could you tell me about your life?” doesn’t always the best approach, as you’re likely to get a relatively brief answer. Instead, come prepared with a set of specific questions to help get the ball rolling. Storycorps has a wonderful list of questions.
Additionally, if this person happens to be the unofficial Keeper of Family History, you’re going to want to ask them about your family history and lore as well. That way these stories won’t disappear when this person is no longer around. In both instances (asking about their own life and other family history), the person may start out saying that they don’t remember much, but usually once they start talking, one memory prompts another, and so on.
Photos can also be a great prompt
Most families have a drawer or shoebox (or even album) full of old unmarked family photos, where you think the guy in the hat is your Uncle Jerry, but you’re not 100 per cent sure and would need to check. Now is your time to check.
If you’re doing a video call with the person, have a few photos that you have questions about ready to go. Show them the photo and ask who the people are, where and when it was taken, and what else they can tell you about it. If they have the photos on their end, ask them to bring some to the video call to discuss. Even if it’s an old family portrait that has hung on the wall since the mid-1970s and you’ve walked by it a million times, there may be specific stories behind the picture that you’ve never heard before.
Be ready to record
Unless you’re currently quarantined with the person you’d like to interview, the conversation will take place over the phone or via video call. Now that everyone’s on Zoom, that’s a great option for this type of discussion, since you can record both video and audio.
Skype has a similar recording feature. You can also record video through Google Meet, or audio through Google Voice. You could also put your phone on speaker and use a good old-fashioned recorder (or someone else’s phone) to capture the audio of the call. Or try Otter, which allows you to record through their website (again, you’d need to be on speaker) and provides a free AI transcription of the call. (It’s far from perfect, but a good start if you’re interested in transcribing.)
Be an active listener
This may seem obvious, but listening is important during these conversations. Put on your reporter’s hat (sure, it can be a fedora—it’s imaginary), and ask follow-up questions. You may want to take notes during the call so you know which topics you’d like to circle back to and revisit.
Also, pay attention to if/when the person starts to get tired. Some people are more than happy to talk about themselves for hours, but for others, this is an entirely new experience, and could be exhausting—especially reliving old memories they may not have thought about in years. If you notice the person is slowing down, ask them if they’d like to stop for the day and pick up the conversation at another time. If that’s the case, schedule the next call immediately so it’s on the books.
Make a note at where you’ve left off in the conversation. You may also want to ask the person to make a note of any interesting stories or tidbits they think of after the call is over that they might want to discuss next time. Finally, make sure to thank them for their time—they really are giving you a gift.