We get it: social distancing is hard, and sheltering in place is a surefire recipe for cabin fever. And your older friends and relatives have it even harder than you do — they don’t even like bingeing The Office. Everyone’s feeling disconnected. But a tried and true way to rebuild some of that sense of familiarity is good old fashioned storytelling. People are using video conferencing apps for work, for gaming, for virtual happy hours. Let’s use them to reconnect with family storytime too.
Whether it’s asking someone to recall childhood memories, tell a favorite joke, or just reminisce about the good ol’ days, we encourage you to use this time to have meaningful conversations with those you love. Use the tips below to assist with everything from casual conversation to laying the groundwork for recorded interviews that could preserve your family’s history for future generations.
Part 1: Keeping it Casual
Some of your older loved ones might be still getting acclimated to using new tools like Zoom. In this case, it might be best to start with the basics. Joke about the pros and cons of technology. Make a bet about who can remember more phone numbers and addresses from childhood. Recall a favorite family meal, sporting event, pet, or vacation.
When all else fails, ask about current interests and hobbies. Enthusiasm is great fuel for conversation. If your dad loves messing around with old CB radios, ask some specific questions, like Where did he get all these CB radios?, How many CB radios does he need, anyway? Who the heck is he talking to over CB radio? And what does CB even stand for?*
If your loved ones’ hobbies bore you, it might be worth trying this classic technique: instead of tuning it out, dig deeper! Ask them why they find this particular thing so fascinating. As understanding grows, so will interest. You never know, you might develop an interest in horse racing, wood flooring, or electrical engineering you never knew you had.
Once you’ve got them engaged in enthusiastic conversation, it will become easier to prompt them to share stories about the past — preferably ones you haven’t heard before! It’s worth a little digging to discover things you never knew about your loved ones, and in turn your family history.
Step 2: Storytime
One of the easiest ways to elicit stories is to connect something that’s happening now to things they’ve done or seen before. Swapping pandemic stories probably isn’t the most pleasant route to take at the moment, but it might be fair to ask questions about what it was like to live through other big world events.
“What was it like when…?” can lead to some interesting descriptions, and if you follow it up with “do you have any stories from that time you remember?,” you’ll really start seeing history through the eyes of someone who lived it. You might not want details about the mud pits at Woodstock, but the story of your Uncle Vernon sending love letters to your Aunt Alice when he was stationed in Germany may give you a deeper understanding of their relationship.
If you enjoy hearing these stories, it might be worthwhile to schedule a more formal interview. Many incredible memories never get retold or preserved, and eventually they vanish, like tears in rain. You can do something to ensure future generations have a way to explore their family history and understand the people they came from.
Step 3: The Family Archive Interview
A Family Archive Interview is more than just a conversation between two people, it’s a document intended to preserve history for future generations. The first step is to choose a video conferencing program capable of recording. There are several options we recommend here.
Once you’ve settled on your preferred app and run a test, here are some simple ways to guide your interview. Keep in mind that these ideas are appropriate not just for parents and children, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, and anyone who you feel has stories to tell that are important to your family’s history. These are tried and true interview techniques (that you might find handy for unrecorded conversations as well).
1. Prepare: Before you start, write down a few things you’d like to know or have questions about. At first glance, perhaps you think you know your subject pretty well — but sketch a few ideas and you’ll probably find gaps in your knowledge of them. Write down your own notes, or skim through our sample questions below and see if any of them apply.
2. Do the best you can with lighting & sound. If ever we were getting a lesson in how “good enough” is OK, it’s right now — even national networks are using these same apps to broadcast from home. By now, everyone should know the basics of how little touches can make a difference between something that looks and sounds passable, and something that is hard to watch or unintelligible. Don’t let subjects film themselves with bright backgrounds (daytime windows) or in loud, reverberant spaces.
3. Start simple: Especially if you’re recording for posterity, ask the basics: name and birthdate, where they were born and where they grew up. You might know all these details, but someone listening to this later might not. Get it all on record, that way your great-grandkids will know upfront that Aunt Liesl grew up in the Everglades, and the unfortunate alligator story won’t come out of nowhere.
4. Create room for a story: Try to keep questions open-ended. Instead of “Where did you hit the home run that broke the truck window?” ask “Can you describe the day that you hit the home run that broke the truck window?” or “Does anything stick out in your mind about the truck window repairman?” Sometimes the best way to prompt someone to elaborate is to keep your mouth shut and let them fill the silence with more great stories!
5. Stay open: Observe and listen. When you notice positive emotions around something, ask them to delve further: “What was so special about the state fair?” If there’s someone or something that seems important, ask about it. “You mentioned Aunt Irene again. What was she like growing up? Did she really drive in the demolition derby?”
6. Drill down on the interesting stuff: Don’t let the fun stuff go by. If there’s a moment in a story that sounds important, it can be helpful to ask, “Can you walk me through that moment? What was that like for you?” See if you can get them to let you inside their head in a big moment. “What did you think the first time you saw Dad? Did he give you that goofy smile he always gives you?”
7. Ask about some specific things: Identify a few likes and dislikes you know they have, and structure a few questions around their favorite subjects, such as:
• Sports: Watching and playing are both worthy subjects. Do they have a favorite sports team? What was their first experience like going to a game? Did they play any sports? Which was their favorite? Do they have any specific memories from their playing days?
• Arts: Again, watching and making are worth investigating. If they play an instrument, what was their introduction to music? When did they first start to play? What was the first song they learned? If they love the theater, what was their first Broadway show? What was their favorite? Did they ever meet someone they admired? What was that like?
• Pets: Did they grow up with any pets? Which one was their favorite and why? Do they remember any funny stories? Any sad ones? Did the dog ever eat their homework? Can cats read my thoughts?
• Music: Music can evoke powerful memories. Ask them to recall a favorite song from when they were growing up. They may even want to sing a little of it. Or you could pull it up and play it for them (try to find the original, not the ska-punk cover version from 1999). You can ask: does that song make you think of anything? Does it bring up any good memories? Favorite songs usually do. Ska-punk covers, not so much.
• Family Traditions: If your family has any traditions that go back a long way, you can ask about when they first learned that tradition, who taught them, and perhaps where it comes from. You can ask if they had any funny or interesting traditions growing up, and if that sparks a story, follow up.
• Family History: If you want to go back further, you can ask them about their parents or grandparents. Finding out how their parents met, or what they liked to do with their children, can spark more interesting stories.
8. Don’t be afraid to wander: Sometimes meandering around gets you somewhere you never knew you wanted to go. These interviews can be as wide-ranging as you like. A few simple prompts — “Can you explain that a little more?,” “How did you know them?,” “Did you really sell a young Harrison Ford your power drill?” — can spark up new insights and stories.
9. Have a good time! Smile at the good memories, laugh when you find something funny, let them know when you’re enjoying yourself. Make sure to thank them when you’re done.
More Sample Questions
In what ways do you think I’m like you? And not like you?
Who is the person who influenced your life the most?
Which new technology have you found most helpful in your life? Which do you find to be the most annoying?
Is there anything you wish you had asked your parents?
Did you grow up with any pets?
Did you live in a house or an apartment? What was it like? What was your room like?
How many brothers and sisters do you have? If older, do you remember learning anything from them? If younger, do you remember when they were born?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What’s your favorite book or movie and why? What was your favorite when you were young?
What was the first job you ever had?
What was the best job you ever had?
Who were your heroes or role models when you were young?
For veterans: What was your experience in the military like? Did you like it? Do you think it shaped you as a person?
Did you go to college? What did you study? Was it the first time you were away from home for that long?
What is your earliest memory?
Did you receive an allowance as a child? How much? Did you save your money or spend it? Can you remember the first time you saved up for something and got it?
Who were your friends growing up?
Did you ever get into trouble as a kid? How did that influence you when you got older?
What was school like for you as a child? What were your best and worst subjects?
Do you remember any fads or slang from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothing? What was “cool” to do?
What world events had the most impact on you?
Do you know any stories about the history of the family name, or the origins of the family?
Do you remember any big events happening in the world when you grew up?
What do you want your children and grandchildren to remember about you?
What was the happiest moment of your life?
What are you most proud of?
What life advice would you pass along to young people?
The following is a sampling of guides for more interviewing tips and best practices:
- The Smithsonian Folklife and Cultural Heritage: Oral History Interviewing Guide
- Tim Ferriss’ Interview with Cal Fussman, the “Jedi of Oral Histories”
- Frederic Falisse on Questiology – the art of Asking Questions (make sure to turn on subtitles using the gear in the lower right corner)
- The Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center: Oral History Interviews
- StoryCorps: Great Questions
*Bonus points for those of you who knew “Citizens Band” without Googling!