This is the second in a three part series, in celebration of Personal History Awareness month.
Last week I wrote about the importance of capturing stories before it’s too late. I encouraged everyone to start having conversations with loved ones. For some, a service like 11stories will be the perfect way to capture and record those precious stories. For others, you may just want to start the conversation yourself.
So how do you get started?! You may have already tried talking with your family about their life stories. Whether it’s a memory of an important family event or simply a recollection of childhood, it helps to have a few strategies for success…
Let’s say you want to record your dad’s stories. Tell him that you’d like to have a conversation, and be sure to explain to him the value of having those stories recorded. Your dad will be touched to know that you are interested and that you want to take the time to listen.
Explain to your dad why you want to use a recorder, and make sure you are comfortable with using it ahead of time, so the recorder is not a distraction.
For most folks, it really is easiest to just start at the beginning. Ask your dad to tell you when and where he was born. While this may seem like an obvious question, it can be helpful to begin with a few “easy” questions just to get your dad talking. A question about where he was born can naturally lead in to stories of his parents and his early childhood. From there, you can ask follow-up questions.
Your dad may offer short answers at first, and that is to be expected. Stay with him in the conversation, asking questions that encourage him to give more details. For example, if he skims over his early childhood, ask him to elaborate on what his bedroom looked like, or the name of his best friend or a favorite teacher. Those prompts will soon encourage him to bring in more details and provide a richness to his stories.
Your job as the interviewer is really just to be a good listener. Don’t worry about going in with an elaborate list of questions – it will distract you from being present in the conversation and it may feel disruptive to your dad’s natural style of speaking. It is more helpful to brainstorm ahead of time a simple list of topics or major life events that you want to cover. This could be simply early childhood, time in the military, how your parents met, and the highlights of your dad’s career. The best types of questions are those that show you are interested and that invite more detail – “tell me more about that” or “can you explain that?”
Plan to keep your initial conversation relatively brief – about a half an hour to an hour – and know that you may only get through one or two of your topics in this first session. It is most important to establish a comfortable environment that lets your dad know that you are interested in hearing his stories and reflections, and that you will make time to cover everything he wishes to share. Cherish this time to sit with your dad and reflect, and just see where the conversation takes you. You will learn something new about your dad, and he will surely treasure the chance to sit and reminisce with you. Have fun!