Kara Long Mar 26, 2022
In this 12-part series, we’ll be highlighting the life of a beloved family member: Uncle Al. He was a WW2 Vet, a Ford Motors man, and an amazing storyteller. This is a story about stories, and how your stories can shape your family’s legacy.
If one of your loved ones has agreed to share their stories with you to be recorded for your family history, you might be wondering what all you should be doing to prepare for that day. To be clear, there are many things (well beyond three) that you could do to prepare, but I want to keep it simple for you. Let’s start with just three things:
As a rule of thumb, it’s great to go into an interview prepared with a list of questions or topics you want to ask Grandma about her life. Bring a notebook or paper and take notes. Ask follow-up questions or clarifying questions when you don’t understand. When I interview people about their oral histories, I have them state, for posterity, basic things about themselves, like their full name and when and where they were born. Remember that you already may know that information, but these records aren’t just for you! They’re for future generations that have never met your Grandma and would not necessarily know that information. Think of stories she’s told you before that you want to be able to hear again and again. Consider what things might be the same between her lifetime and yours, and what might be vastly different. I won’t go into the full list of how to generate a list of great questions here, but if you’re curious, you can check out our site! The main point is to be curious and thoughtful.
This extends to researching, or lack thereof, beforehand. Taking some time to research key events your loved one has lived through, time periods, trends, technology, wars, etc. can make really great fodder for questions. I highly encourage you to do this. But, please don’t think that in order to record great family stories, that research is required. Many times, some of the best stories come out naturally in conversation—not from the prompting of a well-timed, well-researched question—but instead from someone going, “Hey Uncle Al, what was that story you told me once about painting stripes on the planes? What was that all about?” That person may have lacked the historical knowledge to know he was asking about preparing for D-Day. I’m telling you, that’s okay. Because Uncle Al was happy to educate us about why he painted stripes on the planes and what they were used for. And I personally learned and remembered it better because it came from him, in the form of a story, instead of a fact from a textbook. I just want you to keep an open mind and be curious. Do research if you want to. But also understand that unplanned, un-staged stories blossom all the time without a rehearsed historical prerequisite.
2. Come with the right equipment
In the last article, we talked about choosing a recording method that fits the preferences of your Memory Giver. Uncle Al was perfectly fine on camera, but your grandma might prefer audio-only. Regardless, you should come prepared with the proper recording gear. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy! In fact, if you own a smartphone and a tripod with a phone mount, that’s everything you should need. Your camera app will work for video recording, and any number of voice-recording apps will work for audio-only recording. If you don’t own a smartphone, you could pick up an inexpensive voice recorder or a relatively inexpensive video recorder with a tripod mount.
In all cases, it’s important to make sure you have enough space on your phone, voice recorder, or video recorder. Depending on the intended length of your interview, you may need to clear off unused phone apps or transfer photos and videos to a computer to make space for a video file. Audio files are much smaller! To see how much space you might need, record a one-minute video with your phone, then check the file size in the photo’s details and multiply by the number of minutes you plan to record. That’s how much space you need to leave (and I would make room for extra space in case the interview runs longer than you expect). If you’re using a handheld voice recorder, it likely comes with a set amount of space, but anything above 4 GB of space should be more than enough for a single interview. If you’re using a video recorder, you’ll likely need to purchase an SD card (most are a standard 8, 16, or 32 GB) and will tell you how many minutes they will record in High Definition (HD) or 4K. One quick tip: unless you are planning to turn this interview into a cinematic documentary, you should be just fine with HD video, which will take up far less space than 4K.
Battery life is also a factor. Make sure you come prepared with a full battery, or at the very least a phone charger (and an extension cord to give you extra length). Video saps a lot more power on your phone than audio does. If you’re using a handheld voice recorder, the batteries are usually long-lasting; just fully charge it before you go to the interview. If you’re using a video recorder, you could periodically check the battery as the interview goes on or opt to leave it plugged in the whole interview to ensure it doesn’t run out of battery (an extension cord might not be a bad idea here either).
3. Be cognizant of your Memory Giver
The last primary step is to always be aware of your Memory Giver and how they’re doing during the interview. If you’re interviewing Grandma, let her know at the beginning of the interview that she can take a break any time—that she doesn’t have to answer any questions she doesn’t want to. During the interview, just be a caregiver as well a curious loved one. Does Grandma need a restroom break? Does she need a refill on her glass of water? Are the questions you’re asking stimulating her to respond, or does she not seem eager to talk about them? Sometimes certain topics can be difficult to talk about. This doesn’t mean they should never be talked about, but it does mean you should be aware of whether Grandma wants to talk about them or not, and respect her wishes. Check in periodically to see if Grandma needs a break, if she’d like to keep going and talk about the next topic, or if she’d like you to come back another time to continue.
Scheduling your memory sharing sessions may sound very formal, but getting a date on a calendar helps ensure you won’t indefinitely put it off. So if Grandma does say she wants you to come back another time to finish, make sure to put that date on your calendars.
There are many more things we can do to prepare to interview our loved ones about their personal and family stories, and if you’re interested in learning more or need help figuring out your oral story technology, please reach out on our website. However, these three major things will get you on the right track. My advice is to come prepared with the right tech, be genuine, and be curious!
Stay tuned for Part 8, where we’ll talk about what to do with these recordings once you have them. Or, if you’d like to read this series from the beginning, click here for Part 1.