How to Ask the LifeStory Questions

Most people think that asking questions is all about talking. I believe that asking questions in a LifeStory setting is much more about listening than it is about talking. How you ask your LifeStory questions will have a lot more to do with what the interviewee is saying and how they are reacting to the conversation than your agenda involving your questions. So don’t be surprised if the following helpful hints about questioning sound a lot like helpful hints on becoming a better listener.

Helpful Hint #1 – Watch Your Voice Tone and Body Language When Asking the Questions – Interviewing someone for their LifeStory involves many different tones and moods as you cover different periods of a life. It makes sense that your body language, tone of voice and overall demeanor will change from the questions about what they did for fun as a kid to how they heard and handled the news of the death of a close relative. As you ask about what games they played with their schoolmates during the elementary school years, you should have a smile on your face and a jovial show of body language. But be prepared for a change of that tone if they share that they were left out of fun and games as a child for reasons you didn’t anticipate. The only way you will catch this is if you are actively listening.

Helpful Hint #2 – Use Empathy (It’s About Them, Not You) – While you might have an agenda of what information you want to gather, the story is about them, not you. Therefore, you must ask the questions with their answers in mind, not how you would answer the question! This is a common mistake that many interviewers make. They expect an answer to have certain words or be delivered in certain way. Because of this, they might ask a question in a superior or patronizing manner. Without naming names, some professional interviewers/talk show hosts make it about themselves. They ask their questions to show off their intelligence or sense of humor. And that might be good for their talk show, but it doesn’t work with the “why” I have, or you might have, for the LifeStories we conduct.

Of my favorite professional interviewers is Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s program, Fresh Air . I believe she is one of the best at having empathy with her interviewees. After I’ve heard an entire interview of hers, I feel like I really know the interviewee. And it took me years to know anything about Terry! That’s the sign of a great interviewer.

Helpful Hint #3 – Don’t Look At Your Notes While Asking the Question – As you are asking a question, your interviewee will begin to react to what is being asked…long before you finish asking the question. They might even interrupt you from finishing the question. It is for this reason that you must have your eyes fixed on them when asking your question. That is why I have my questions written on 3″ X 5″ index cards. I can hold them in the palm of one hand, keep my thumb on the next question to be asked, and quickly (very quickly) glance down at it well before asking it. If I am intently watching the interviewee as I ask the question, I am prepared to change the tone and demeanor of the question (as I am asking it) if their reaction is not one I expect. The best result of that is that the interviewee really believes that you are listening to them, and not just selfishly asking questions.

Helpful Hint #3 – Apologize If You Screw Up – Staying focused and asking questions for long periods of time is difficult. So mistakes and other screw ups will happen. They do for me! The best thing to do is apologize to the interviewee and move on. Never make excuses for mistakes. This just builds a mistrust that you cannot afford to have with your interviewee.

In my next blog post we will begin to cover the equipment and technology used in a LifeStory.

Questions, Questions & More Questions – Crafting the Questions for the LifeStory

You’ve gathered all these facts, photos and information for the LifeStory interview. Now it’s time to craft the questions that will accomplish the goals you have for the interview. While digesting this vast amount of information seems like eating an elephant, remember the advice of the old African saying: “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One piece at a time.”

Piece #1 – Remember the Format You Chose – In a previous blog post, we discussed the different formats you could use for your interview: Category of events (education history, work history, location of home history, etc.) and chronologically (in order of when the life events happened) are two examples. I prefer to conduct my LifeStory interviews chronologically. People seem to remember more if they are asked questions in the order in which the events occurred. I also find it easier to pace the interview based on how they are “feeling” while discussing that period of their lives.

If your format for the interview is chronological, be sure to formulate your questions based on how the interviewee thought at that time of their life. I learned this when being trained to interview Holocaust survivors For example, if I am interviewing someone who was a six-year-old child at the time of the Holocaust, I wouldn’t ask them about the philosophy of the German soldiers in the camps at that time. I’d ask in a way that a child was thinking at that time. Questions involving the senses are good. For instance, “What sounds do you remember from the camp?” “Describe any unusual smells you remember from the ghetto.” Or because of their height at the time, “What did the boots of the soldiers look like to you?”

Piece #2 – Not Just the Facts, But the Feelings, too – The interviewees are expecting you to ask questions that will uncover the facts of their lives. You must include them to build the foundation of the LifeStory. What makes the stories have decor and flavor, however, are the questions that go beyond the facts. To add decor and flavor to the LifeStory, ask questions about feelings and thoughts as well. For instance, “How did it feel to win that first place medal in that contest?” Or “What was the first thing that went through your mind when the doctor said you had cancer?”

Piece #3 – The Question They’ve Never Been Asked – One of my goals in the LifeStories I conduct is to bring out the essence of the interviewee…to find out what they are really like deep down inside. To do this, I include a few questions they’ve probably never been asked before. I do this not to throw them off-guard. I do this to make them think and reflect before they answer. Here are a couple of examples: “What was the most valuable lesson your father taught you, whether directly or indirectly, about being a parent?” Then follow the answer with, “Have you passed that down to your kids and, if so, how have you done that?” Coming up with these questions takes some thought and creativity, but you’re up to the task!

Bonus Piece #4- Do Not Let the Interviewee See the Questions Before the Interview – The reason for this is simple. When they know the questions in advance, the answers look rehearsed and scripted. I prefer the knee-jerk response to my LifeStory questions. I believe that policy helps bring out that essence of the individual I am looking for.

There are many other pieces to crafting good questions, but here’s the most important thing for you to remember: Every question you ask will be a good one if you approach the task with sincere interest and genuine curiosity.

My next blog post will cover how to ask the questions you’ve just crafted.

An Inspiring 9/11 Story You Haven’t Heard

I just found a link to an inspiring 9/11 story I hadn’t heard in the ten years since that memorable day. Please watch this and then come back and read the rest of this blog post: .

“I believe (every)body has a little hero in ’em. You gotta look in. And if it’s in there, it’ll come out.” These are the words of one of the unsung heroes in New York City ten years ago. A hero captured in this Tom Hanks video. The question I ask myself today is, “What can I do to discover and act upon the hero within me?”

We can all do something. One of the valuable lessons pointed out in this video is how, at a time of intense tragedy, we helped one another. We set aside any differences, any prejudices, any ways that we, all too often these days, look to divide one another. We came together to become one. May one of the lessons of September 11, 2001 be that we should look at one another with those eyes on a daily basis, view one another as fellow citizens, and, thus, find the hero within us all.

Research for the LifeStory

Now that you’ve found your “why”, completed your pre-interview questionnaire (PIQ) work, and gathered photos, it’s time to do a bit of research before you formulate the questions you will bring to the LifeStory interview. The first thing you must answer is how you want to structure the interview. There are a number of ways to do this. Two popular ways are to do it by subject matter (family, education, military experience, work life, etc.) or chronologically (using a time frame in order of occurrence). I prefer to conduct my interviews chronologically. Most people remember stories if they are asked in order of occurrence. In fact, the older we get, the more we seem to remember what happened many years ago, but can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday!

Before I write down my first question to ask the interviewee, I arrange the photos and documents that I gathered in chronologic order. This begins with the photos of the interviewee’s oldest ancestors on both their paternal and maternal sides. Continue with grandparents and parents. Helpful Hint #1 – If you have digitized the photos and documents by scanning them, organizing them will be much easier in a folder on your computer. Labeling each photo with a number (of occurrence in questions asked), then with the description of what’s in the photo helps to arrange and rearrange the order as you formulate your questions. Next, take the earliest baby photo of the interviewee and continue through their life in chronologic order.

With the PIQ form in front of you, page through the filled in facts and make notes of dates and other facts still unclear or not answered at all. This might typically include dates of birth or death of ancestors and parents. It could include dates of service and places stationed in military service. If I am unfamiliar with the exact geographic location of places they’ve lived, I’ll use Mapquest to help locate those areas. Questions will arise due to locations of places they called home. For example, I recently interviewed a lady who grew up in Queens Village, New York just a few blocks from the Belmont Park Race Track. So naturally I asked if she remembered anything about horse racing at Belmont when she was a little girl. Did her family go to the races? Without that geographic research, I would not have known to ask about Belmont Park. Geographic research is especially meaningful when covering war stories. Many LifeStory interviewees will share with me stories from wartime experiences that they’ve never told anyone before. If I am not familiar with the geographic journey they took during the war, I would not be able to follow the story well.

Don’t forget to ask other familial members of the interviewee questions during this period of research. They are usually able to provide additional stories and facts that will help you in your research. While much of what they supply you is only from stories they “heard” and are not necessarily fact, they are still important to include. Family members can also add contradicting “facts” about the interviewee’s history that will, for purposes of the interview, add some wonderfully thought-provoking questions.

As you use Google and all the other incredible web-based research tools, don’t forget to use some of the old-fashioned methods…like going to the public library or your local history center. The people working will there provide professional help in your quest for research. Think of it as a treasure hunt. What you end up finding is sometimes a treasure you weren’t searching for when you began your quest.

In my next blog post, we will begin our journey in formulating the questions for your LifeStory interview. Stay tuned. The fun is just beginning!