family is story

6 Tips for Family History Interviews

6 Tips for Family History Interviews

Only recently am I coming to understand and recognize my passion for family history. Growing up, it was not uncommon for unofficial family reunions of 100 Dortches to descend upon a central homestead several times a year. We love a good gathering. As the older generations have passed on, it’s hard not to notice that our gatherings are sometimes smaller and less frequent. Realizing that times are changing has pressed me toward taking action on some of the family-centric projects I’ve delayed for years.

Since I first watched my grandmother draw out a beautiful tree on a piece of notebook paper—to which she labeled (from memory) six generations of our family—I’ve known that having roots is important. From the slide shows my grandfather conducted on most Friday nights, I learned that recording memories made connections between others.

I’m only now slowing down enough to realize that my projects of recording my family history, tracing my family tree, and establishing my own family traditions, are passions that have lain dormant for too long.

Several months ago, I set out to video a series of interviews with my dad. His thoughts on life and his memories provide treasured insights for me and future generations of my family. In a previous post, I listed the questions I compiled from my online research that I used as a guideline to spark my father’s memories.

However, having a comprehensive list of questions and barreling through them is not going to make for a good interview. Recording memories is a marathon, not a sprint.

Provided below are six guidelines I used while interviewing my dad. I implore you to make these ideas your own, print the questions from my previous post, and learn about yourself and your family through this process.

1)   No pressure; be conversational! Your father or grandmother may feel nervous to be on camera. Therefore, it’s a good idea to establish a no pressure attitude. Reassure them, that this is not a one-way street—they will not be expected to recite their life story from beginning to end without stopping. Rather, this is a time of conversation, to learn more about family and to document unique memories. As the interviewer, and as the person in relationship to the subject, you have the ability to discern what questions to skip and which questions to reword. Use your knowledge of the subject to banter and engage during the question-answer process. This will make the event a conversation instead of a documentary.

2)   Ask them to tell the stories you’ve heard but can’t quite remember. There will be some stories that you remember hearing from your subject that aren’t related to the list of questions you’ve compiled. Ask for permission to talk about various stories and ask them to fill in the details you’ve forgotten.

3)   Be in a good space. You want everyone involved to be comfortable. I’ve found it best to place the camera to the side and not directly in front of the subject. It usually provides a more complimentary viewing angle, and it’s less intimidating than a straight-on shot. Make sure the subject is in a comfy chair, has water accessible to them, is comfortable with the temperature and feels at home. Also, be sure the lighting is not glaring into their eyes and isn’t too hot. Indirect lighting, bouncing off of white walls, or even makeshift reflective boards can be used to diffuse light.

4)   Take breaks. This will be a lengthy process. There will be many tangents, and you’ll unearth memories that are emotional. Take a break every hour to stand up, walk around, get a drink, eat a snack, etc. The breaks will help keep the emotions at bay, and will provide the brain a few minutes to rest.

5)   Be spontaneous. Memories often spark memories, so be prepared to be spontaneous. Know that your subject is going to wander after many rabbit trails. And that’s great! You want those stories and memories that you haven’t heard before; you want those insights. Don’t get bent out of shape because you’re not “sticking to the script” of your questions list. Engage your subject with questions about their tangent. This proves your interest and validates the importance of what they’re sharing. Also, be aware that some questions may get answered because of a tangent on a previous question. No worries, skip ahead and adapt. And it’s perfectly acceptable to take a moment—while the camera rolls—to find your place, or make adaptations to your interview plan. This is not a film festival entry . . . unless it is. But, there’s editing.

6)   Roll with the emotions. Things will get emotional. Have a discrete box of tissues within sight of the subject. If tears emerge, he or she can see to grab one if needed. It would be best not to point out the tissues or hand them over. Allow the subject to feel what they are feeling and to reach for a tissue on their timeline. If you’re able to, remain calm and breathe deeply so that you can support your subject through the difficult memory. Once their story or this emotional moment is passed, take a break for a few minutes and regroup.

Have you interviewed a family member? How did it go? What did you learn?


©2014 Jennifer Wilder. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint or publish this content elsewhere, please contact me through this blog.