Tom Hanks and Typewriters?

This morning’s CBS Sunday Morning broadcast included a story of Tom Hanks and one of his favorite artifacts to collect…typewriters. Who knew? https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-uncommon-type/

As one of my favorite actors, Hanks has always played his characters on film as if he were really them. This is the first interview I’ve seen that brings out what I feel is the essence of who he is as a regular person. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Mementos and personal artifacts we’ve collected over the years are part of our stories. Hanks explains why he loves typewriters in an emotional way that involves your senses. He even ties this into the book he is about to release, Uncommon Type. His description of each typewriter, “Each typewriter has sort of a personality”, makes me see his personality in each machine. Each of us has an artifact, a memento in our lives that describe the essence of who we are. This interview makes me look around to find the memento in my home that describes me.
  2. He reveals a part of his childhood that I never knew. By the time he was ten years old, both his parents had been married three times and he lived in ten different houses. His attitude of that period of time: “I thought it was a cool adventure. I was confused a lot about why it happened…In some ways it’s like I’m going back and looking at those times, for me and my siblings, and trying to put context into the confusion.” How does that change a young boy? What effect does that have on his future? Hanks explains it with a sense of calm and curiosity.
  3. His comment at the end, “If I see enough stories that are around and start asking enough questions about where it would go, then, yea, I hope to write more.” He’s always looking for more. His next adventure in writing is unknown, but he keeps asking questions. I can relate.

As my first book is due to be published at the end of this month (stay tuned), I, too, hope to keep “asking enough questions” and to write more. Thank you, Tom Hanks. You and your typewriters are an inspiration.

An Answer to the Tough Question, “Why Record Their Life Stories?”

Over the years of recording people’s life stories, I will ask my clients, who are usually the children of the interviewee(s), “Why do you want to record their life stories?” While the answers I have heard may vary, the root of the answers usually incorporate a common theme. That common theme is as tough to grasp as the question itself: the realization of their mortality.

We all know we are, some day, going to die. Our society has taught us that discussing this, even just thinking about it, is a frightening thing to do. And when we think of it happening to someone we love, emotion kicks in and then we really don’t want to talk or think about it. But when considering the mortality of a loved one, one of the risks of giving in to the fear of not addressing it is that one of the most important legacies they could leave behind, their stories, will be lost forever.

As with most of our fears that we finally address, confronting the fear and dealing with it leaves us in a state of gratitude for the lessons we learn from the experience. I continually hear from my clients after they’ve viewed the LifeStory we recorded of their loved one, tremendous joy in not only hearing the stories, but knowing that they are preserved forever.

The good news is that, while I’d love to help you record the stories, you don’t need a professional to record the stories of your loved ones. You can do it yourself. The next blog post will give you helpful hints on how to do it yourself.

In the meantime, think of the collective hugs you get when you answer the tough question, “Why record their life stories?”

mother hugs

 

 

Tips on Archiving Family History

I am often asked about tips on archiving family history from the assortment of things passed down from generation to generation. Specifically, I am asked about photos and recorded items: old photos, audio tapes, cassette recordings of many sizes, video tapes, etc.. I recently read a great article that answers many of the questions I get.  Bertram Lyons, an archivist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., authored the following article in the New York Times http://tinyurl.com/ow4qczc. Bertram (pictured below) gives the best explanation I’ve read about what to look for in finding professional to help you archive your family history media treasures.Bertram Lyons

If you ever thought that the old photos and recordings that are shoved in a box somewhere will last forever, think again. Please take the time to find them and digitize them soon! At LifeStories Alive http://www.lifestoriesalive.com, we are continually faced with clients who remember “that great photo” of their ancestor from their childhood that is no longer usable due to neglect. It’s not that expensive to safe a priceless heirloom. Do it now!

Listening – Uncovering the Forgotten Communication Tool – Part II: Handling the “What Ifs” (Emotion)

The subject of communication is as vast as an ocean. I’ll try to teach the tools I’ve learned one drink at a time, so we can swallow and enjoy each one.  Let’s begin exploring the “what ifs” that inevitably come up in conversation. As we learn together the tools used to become a better listener, one of the most fearful situations that people are forced to handle is emotion.

“What if they start crying?” “What if I start to cry?” “What do I do?” In the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I have, as you can imagine, encountered tears in many forms and for many reasons. Here are some rules of thumb that I use when emotion comes up. Please realize that my comments are taken with my role at LifeStories Alive in mind, as an interviewer there to record their LifeStories…not as a parent, loving spouse, or best friend.

What if they start to cry?

 

  1. Don’t interrupt the emotion or say anything! This one is tough for me to do. My childhood upbringing taught me that it is proper to comfort a person who gets emotional. What I have found, however, in the setting of a conversation, is that if I let them get the emotion out…completely out…they will feel better when they are finished. Another benefit is that some of the most valuable pearls of wisdom and heart-felt comments have come at the end of uninterrupted emotion. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/6n3cge8. What would I have missed if I interrupted that emotion?
  2. Be compassionate with your body language but never say, “I understand” (because you don’t) or “It’s okay” (because it might not be). It’s better to acknowledge the emotion, but don’t try to make it go away.
  3. Don’t invade their personal space. I’m a hugger. I want to gently touch them when the emotion happens. I have learned that invading their personal space will interrupt the emotion, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.
  4. How will I know when they are finished with the emotion? They will always let you know by making eye contact with you. Even after they make that eye contact, take a good, long pause to be sure that they are finished.

What if I start to cry?

With the work I do at LifeStories Alive, I get emotional during an interview. Here are some helpful tools I keep in mind:

  1. Take a deep breath. I try to do this as quietly as possible. I don’t want the audio of a deep breath on my part to be heard (although my editor can remove it in post-production editing).
  2. Keep a tissue or handkerchief near. The audible sound of sniffles is distracting to the speaker/interviewee.
  3. After their emotion is finished, it might be appropriate to explain why what they said touched you…but do this only after you are sure they are finished.

Emotion is a natural part of life. Handling emotion in a respectful way will help make you better listener and, thus, a better communicator.

“Rescuing a Single Life” – Tom, Judy, and The Homeless Coach

“Whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” This is a quote from the Talmud, also mentioned in the movie Schindler’s List http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/. I have had the honor to have met two people who have done such an act of selfless compassion. The first is Tom Baum, founder of The Homeless Coach, a live, interactive social networking approach to reverse homelessness http://www.homelesscoach.org/. Tom has combined his experience and success in the high-tech industry with his huge heart for the plight of the homeless population in Austin and the world. The Homeless Coach’s mission is to reverse homelessness “a single life” at a time.

The second person is Judy Knotts. Judy has developed a mentoring relationship with Kim, the first graduate of the Homeless Coach program. While Judy’s background and experience in private education gives her enough knowledge to help Kim, her involvement goes way beyond logical giving and enters into heartfelt compassion for another people.

Tom mentioned to me that he was scheduled to interview Kim when the StoryCorps http://storycorps.org/ mobile recording booth came to Austin last month. I asked if I could volunteer to interview her instead. I knew a bit about Kim’s story before, but this interview opened my eyes regarding how a life can be transformed from familial abuse, to 22 years on the streets, to coming clean and sober, to earning her associates degree in Medical Billing and Coding from an accredited university, to now studying for a full Bachelor’s degree in Health Care.

In a recent email, Judy writes (to both Tom and I), “Mike you are great on the tape, terrific voice, amazing articulation, and inspired questions. I have heard the CD 3 times since getting it on Saturday. Kim was with me in my car when we began to listen. When I got to the part where she described being beaten, I had to turn it off for a time. It was just too painful. Kim said, “Do you now know why I call  you Mama?”  I get it now. She has never called me anything else. Funny to hear her call me Judy on the CD. There were other things I didn’t know about her. There is value in having someone a bit removed and also experienced conduct the interviews. Kim astounded me with her insights and I told her. She said, ”My speaking is still not good.” We are working on this, hard to change a life time of grammar errors! Amazing men, you two! Proud to know you!”

I am flattered by Judy’s kind words, but more honored to be associated with two people as incredible as Tom and Judy. I hope all of you can some day know a Tom and Judy of your own, so you can personally witness, as I have, how someone can “…rescue a single life.”

“You Don’t Understand”

One would think that if you just heard someone tell you, “You don’t understand”, it would be a negative thing. But when a client of mine told me just that and explained why he said that, I knew it was a much-needed compliment. Let me explain.

I interviewed this client’s parents in Dallas back in May, 2007. His father died about a year later. I called him recently to thank him for referring yet another of his friends to me to have a LifeStory done for their parent(s). I said, “I don’t quite know how to thank you for the numerous referrals you’ve given me.” He said, “You don’t understand. I keep your LifeStory DVDs on my desk at my office. Whenever I am missing Dad, all I have to do is pop in the DVD into my computer and there he is.” He went on to explain that giving me referrals is his gift to his friends so they can experience those memories for themselves.

I was speechless. Little did I know how much those LifeStory DVDs meant to him. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to remind each of you the importance of recording the memories of your loved ones…whether you do it yourself or hire a professional to do it for you.  If you want to do it yourself but don’t know where to begin, please call me. I’d be glad to help you get started. It’s too important to ignore.

I hope you can now say, as I did that day, “Now I understand.”

How to Ask the Difficult Questions

One of the many rewards I receive from interviewing people for their LifeStories is the gratitude from the children and grandchildren of the interviewees. One of the things they typically say is, “I’ve known them all my life but have never heard that story before.” One of the reasons why they’ve never heard the story is because they never asked the question. The most common reason for not asking the question is because it is a difficult one to ask. Here are my thoughts on asking those difficult questions you’ve waited a lifetime to ask:

Thought #1 – Ask the Question Anyway – “How do I word the question?”, “When is the best time to ask it?”, Where should I ask them that question?” are all real fears that get in the way. I say, “As the question anyway.” The fact that you are concerned with those points should let you know that you are sensitive to the subject. If you let fear, however, get in the way of your asking the question, it will never be asked. All too often, I’ll hear at a funeral, “I never knew _____ about them.” If you don’t ask, you’ll never know! Ask anyway.

Thought #2 – Use Empathy – Think to yourself, “If someone were to ask me the same question, how would I want it to be asked of me?” Whatever the answer to that is, use it to ask the question. This is how I formulate many of the questions I use in the LifeStory interviews I conduct. If you follow this advice, your caring and concern for the other person will shine through and make their answer as genuine as it can be.

Thought #3 – They’ve Been Waiting for You to Ask the Question for a Long Time – While this idea might seem foreign to you, you’ll be surprised when they tell you, “I knew you were going to ask me that. I just didn’t know when you were going to get around to it.” The amazing thing about this is that the’ve had an answer for you in their mind for a long time. Think about it in your own life experiences…some things you are just not going to volunteer to tell people unless and until they ask. But when they ask, you will gladly answer. It’s true!

Thought #4 – Approach the Question with the Benefit of Others in Mind – Here’s an example of what I mean by that: “I know you went through a divorce in 1968. Please share with me what experiences you went through and what lessons you learned from those experiences so others (substitute here “your grandchildren”, “your children”, “I”, etc. instead of “others” if it fits) will not go through the same difficult times as you did.” Remember, everyone goes through difficult times in life. Most people would be happy to share those experiences if it means being able to help others avoid making the same mistakes they made.

Thought #5 – Sincere Interest and Genuine Curiosity – I’ve mentioned this before and cannot emphasize it enough. Questions about someone’s life should always be asked with sincere interest and genuine curiosity…and you cannot fake either! This is especially important when you ask difficult questions. The person you are asking will see this and will more likely respond favorably.

Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back when you ask those difficult questions. It’s a brave thing you are doing and you should reward yourself for doing so.

 

Teach Your Children Well

The lyrics of Graham Nash come to mind as I ask my LifeStories Alive interviewees about the valuable lessons they’d like to teach their children. I disagree with Nash’s last stanza, “Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry, So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.” http://tinyurl.com/878l4bl. Yes, tears will sometimes flow as we ask our children (or our parents), “Why?”, but with great risk comes great reward. The answers to what we want to teach our children are so valuable, the questions should, and must, be asked. I have seen the rewards of asking…and they are priceless.

The challenge, however, is not knowing how to ask those questions…questions of lessons learned that should be passed down to future generations. My best advice is to first realize the risk of not asking the questions, and , thus, not allowing the lessons to be learned. When we think of mistakes that we’ve made because we were never taught to avoid them, we begin to realize our multi-generational responsibility. Thinking of this puts us in the frame of mind to ask those questions.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, setting the right environment, or a safe place, for stories to be shared is very important. If possible, ask the questions where you will have minimal chances of interruption. It is horrible to have someone sharing thoughts from their hearts only to have them stopped mid-stream by an interruption. Once someone is “in the zone” of sharing words of wisdom, make it easy to stay in “the zone”.

It is also essential to practice great listening skills while asking these questions. A good, long pause after you think the interviewee has finished with their thought will prevent you from missing a pearl of wisdom that usually follows a long pause of thought. Practice this in your regular, day-to-day conversation to fine-tune this skill. In every LifeStory interview I conduct, I find moments when I am glad I waited that extra second before I said something. This video clip is a perfect example http://tinyurl.com/8xhbzce . Had I interrupted his emotion by saying something, I never would have heard, “I miss my Dad”. While this might not seem like a direct lesson taught to a child, his son sure learned a lot about his father from this clip!

As to what questions to ask so great lessons can be passed along, I suggest using empathy while formulating your questions to ask. For instance, if you are formulating a question regarding parenting skills, ask yourself, “What question should someone ask me if I wanted to pass along what I think a good parent should do?” This is usually a good place to start when thinking about what to ask your interviewee. It will also aid the interviewee in feeling that you posses two of the most important attributes in conversation: sincere interest and genuine curiosity.

So, with all due respect, Graham Nash, I think the lyrics should read, “Go ahead and ask them why, if they told you, all will cry, So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.”

 

First Dates, First Kisses, and Other LifeStory Questions Covering the Early Teen Years

One of my favorite periods of time to cover during a LifeStory interview is the early teen years. I use empathy as much as possible when formulating the questions I will ask that cover this exciting, hormone-surging period of people’s lives. By that, I mean that I ask myself, “What were the things that I was thinking during those years of my life? What was going on with my friends and family during my early teen years?” After answering this, I then ask myself, “If someone were interviewing me, what questions should they ask me to really uncover the happenings and thoughts of my teen years?” By formulating questions this way, you will come across to the people you interview as having two of the most important traits of a good interviewer: sincere interest and genuine curiosity**.

You cannot cover the early teen years without asking about first dates and first kisses. While many of us have a smile on our faces as we anticipate an answer, be careful. The experience for your interviewee might not have been a positive one (but in most cases it was). I usually approach the subject by asking, “It is usually during the early teen years that people start dating. Please tell us, when was your first date and who was the lucky person?”

Their answer will naturally lead to the follow-up questions of, “Where did you go?”, “Why did you go there?” and “Was that where you got your first kiss?” As you can imagine, the answers can be all over the place, but mostly invoke smiles, reflection, and the interviewee leaving the present place of the interview and wondering in their minds back to that time and place. You’ll be able to see this if you pay close attention to their eyes and facial expression. This is exactly what you want. If that is where they go in their mind, then the answers to the follow-up questions will be knee-jerk and totally honest.

A good sample of this is in the following clip from a LifeStory I conducted in Wimberley, TX this year. This charming lady from Waco, TX told the most wonderful stories. While I encourage you as an interviewer to hold back your audible responses during the interview (whether happy or sad), I couldn’t hold my laughter back as she told her story of how a boy, quite literally, stole a kiss from her http://vimeo.com/31403390.

Practice asking those questions about first dates and first kisses with friends in conversation. But be prepared for a lot of fun responses!

** Having “sincere interest and genuine curiosity” is an important mindset and feeling in any form of communication. I learned and practiced this skill from a great trainer, Joe Zente of Z-three in Austin, Texas http://www.zthree.com/. If you are interested in learning more about it, give Joe a call. He helped make me a better communicator and a better business person.

How to Handle Emotion While Interviewing a Loved One

When considering interviewing a loved one for their LifeStories, one of the greatest fears people tell me they have is the fear found in the question, “How do I handle the emotion (especially the tears) that will come up during the interview?” I agree that it can be a tense, scary moment for the interviewer. Instead of thinking of it as a scary moment, think of it as an opportunity, and opportunities are something to look forward to. It is an opportunity because some of the most memorable moments and most valuable words of the recording have come during those emotional moments of the LifeStories I have captured.

Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I conducted an audio LifeStory (no video camera, just professional digital audio recording equipment) with an 87-year-old lady. Her husband of 65 years died just three years ago. So, as you can imagine, tears were shed when we talked about him. She worked at a movie theater at age 17 when they first dated. They had a favorite movie (in 1942) that had “their song” in it. Their song was “You Are Always in my Heart” http://tinyurl.com/3k9uea9. As I put a copy of the words in front of her and asked her to sing the song, she began crying toward the end of her beautiful singing. At the end of her emotion she said, “It’s just been so hard without him.” I could have avoided the question and subject all together, but I would have missed her sharing of how she really felt about her husband.

Here are a few hints about how to handle emotion as it comes up in an interview:

Helpful Hint #1 – Be Silent as it Happens – It is a tendency by many people to want to comfort the interviewee by saying something. Don’t! Any words you say will interrupt their emotion. Some of the most priceless words from their hearts will come at he end of their emotion. If you interrupt their emotion, you will lose and miss those heartfelt words. Here’s an example: http://tinyurl.com/4y7lk6q.

Helpful Hint #2 – Wait Until the Emotion is Finished – This is perhaps the hardest thing for most people to do. How will you know when the emotion is finished? They will show you with their body language. Remember, for you, the length of time during the emotion will seem long. For them, it’s quick. But they will make eye contact with you when they are finished. They will also give you other non-verbal signals that it’s time for the next question.

Helpful Hint #3 – Don’t Touch Them or Invade Their Personal Space – I’m a hugger and a person who likes to comfort another by touching them. In the setting of a LifeStory interview, it’s a definite “no-no” to touch them. Touching them is just as bad as saying something. It will interrupt the emotion.

Helpful Hint #4 – Don’t Stop the Recording – Many interviewees will apologize as the emotion starts and ask to stop recording the interview. Don’t do it! You will miss the priceless words or audible signs of emotion if you stop the recording. Remember that if you are using digital recording technology, it is easy to take out pieces of the emotion if you choose to later on. You cannot add back in the emotion that you missed after the fact!

Helpful Hint #5 – Keep Your Emotion Controlled – I’m not asking you not to cry (or laugh during joyous emotion). It is normal for you to cry, too. I cry during many of the Lifestories I conduct. What is important to do is to control it. Keep you sniffles and sounds from your mouth to a minimum. Any audible sound from you will be picked up by the microphone. Remember, this is their story, not yours!

Emotion is part of life. Your capturing the LifeStories of your loved ones will involve emotion. You can deal with it in a way that will enhance the value of the LifeStory. Enjoy the journey.