Whether researching your family’s genealogy, looking to forge a deeper connection with a parent, or documenting someone’s life for future generations, personal interviews are a powerful tool to uncover the past. It can feel overwhelming at first, but this three-part guide will help you prepare for and conduct an effective and meaningful discussion. Part one of this series focuses on preparation, part two covers the interview itself, and part three offers tips for conducting an interview remotely using a video conference tool like Zoom.
Your family interview will be far more effective if you’ve thought about what you want to talk about in advance and collected any related materials.
We recommend three key steps for preparing for your interview:
Who will you be talking to and what do you want to learn? What historic moments or significant life experiences might you want to hear about? Create a rough timeline of the storyteller’s life, including key dates and names. If you know your storyteller fought in WWII or marched in the Civil Rights Movement, familiarize yourself with those topics broadly so you can ask specific questions.
Photographs and music can be powerful memory triggers, especially for older relatives. Consider gathering related materials like photos, digitized home movies, songs, letters, or newspaper articles to bring questions to life and spark special recollections. You might even want to ask other family members to share these kinds of items in advance to help you prepare.
A great blueprint for the conversation will be a helpful resource during the interview. You can share it in advance or just use it to keep yourself organized and the conversation on track. Try focusing on a specific stage of the storyteller’s life and proceeding chronologically. You may not follow the roadmap exactly, but it's a great structure to fall back on.
Choosing the right questions in advance and printing them out (or having them available on your phone via the Remento app) will take the pressure off you in the moment and help you plan what you will discuss. Use a combination of your personal knowledge and expert advice to create a list of questions ranging from lighthearted to sentimental. You’ll be surprised what seemingly unrelated stories a random question can spur!