Businesses Have LifeStories, Too!

Most of us believe that if we want to find the heart and soul, the LifeStories, of a family, all we have to do is sit around a Thanksgiving table or any other family gathering and simply listen to the stories shared by the elders. It is there that magical connections can be made to our past and, rightfully so, to who we are inside ourselves. But when the Thanksgiving meal is finished and the relatives have gone home, we run the risk of losing or, God forbid, forgetting the stories that connect us all. That’s why they must be recorded.

While we think about those of our family, we seldom think about the stories of the businesses we work within on a daily basis. How can the heart and soul of a business or non-profit organization be passed down to “future generations”, to potential and current clients and employees? It’s not as easy as it might be for families, but it is possible.

Simon Sinekstart-with-why

At LifeStories Alive, we always start with “why”. Utilizing the wisdom of Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, businesses should record the answers to the question, “Why do we do what we do?” When a good interviewer is recording the answers from the founders, long-time employees and early customers of a business, that “why” can be presented in a way that magically reveals the heart and soul of a business. Those magical connections that happen with family LifeStories can now happen for a business.

Here is a sample of how an incredible organization, Special Olympics Texas, told their LifeStories, found their “why” and, in the process, relit the flame of how they positively effect the lives of thousands of families in Texas each year:

If you’d like help to record your LifeStories, to find your “why” or just kick around ideas that connect you to your business family, or the one you were born with, please give me a call.

Mike O’Krent – LifeStories Alive, LLC – 512-5431-8166 –

We Don’t Listen Alone

Listening is something I have been both fascinated with and a student of. It is a skill that most people take for granted, think they are good at, and almost never take the steps to improve. This morning I was introduced to a story about Albert Einstein that is a great example of how, if we open our minds to practicing a different way of listening, a whole new world will reveal itself.

I encourage you to read through the entire story When you are finished, think about what in your life you could learn to appreciate further if you merely changed the way you listened to it. Ask yourself, “Who am I listening with, or am I listening alone?”

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!

Who, What, When & Where – The Pre-Interview Questionnaire (PIQ) Form (continued)

We’ve gathered the Basic Interviewee Information and Early Life PIQ form facts in our last blog post . Now it’s time to continue chronologically through the interviewees’s life and gather the facts about Adult Years, Family Background and Specific Life Stories.

For the PIQ purposes, I consider Adult Years to begin after graduation from high school or at about age 18 (if there was no graduation for the interviewee). The first subject I include here is military history since many of my interviewees entered the US military after graduation from high school. To get what I want regarding military history, I developed a chart with columns that include date of service, country, branch (of military), rank attained, place stationed and primary assignments. This is an important category for your research for two reasons: 1) to properly ask questions about their military service, you must follow the chronologic and geographic journey taken; and 2) their stories of military experience are usually the periods of time in their lives they have talked least about with other family members and, therefore, are the most requested unknown life stories you will be asked to capture.

Adult Years continue with a chart of primary occupations,  a list of awards & rewards earned, a chart of health history, a list best friends as an adult and a list of current activities they do for fun. Be especially sensitive when approaching the subject of health history. If the interviewee has experienced some very “personal” health challenges in their history (whether involving physical on mental health), they may not want to address it. My position is that’s okay with me. I want the interviewee to maintain a comfort level with me in order to share what they want during the interview itself. If I push too hard gathering health history they are embarrassed about, I risk losing the trust I need during the interview…and that’s something I cannot afford to lose!

Family Background is the next PIQ section and includes the details you want about grandparents, parents, siblings, spouse(s), children and grandchildren. Keep in mind here when constructing your form that there is no family that is “typical”. Parents can be step-parents, adoptive parents or guardians. Children can be by birth, adopted, or step-children. Each atypical category creates great life questions to ask during the interview.

The last category of information I want to gather from the PIQ form is Specific Life Stories. For this I make a numbered list (1 to 15) with long blanks after each number. I ask the interviewee, “Are there any specific life stories you would like me to ask about during the interview that I will not have gathered from the facts I just filled in. For instance, you might be thinking, ‘Don’t forget to ask me about this particular Thanksgiving, last one before my mother died’ or ‘There’s a story I love telling about how I tormented my sister as a kid’.” You will probably have heard this info during many times earlier during the PIQ meeting, so be prepared during the meeting to “fast-forward” to this page often. This is the part of the PIQ form you may want to ask other family members to chime in on. Some of the “juiciest” stories come from this info.

In my next blog post, we’ll cover gathering photos, documents and mementos.

Start With “Why?”

Now that you’ve decided when to record the LifeStories of your loved ones, it’s time to decide “why”. Stephen Covey, in his best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote as Habit 2 “Begin with the End in Mind.” For us, the end in mind is directly tied to the “why” of recording a LifeStory. The answer to your “why” will guide all the other steps in the process.

In order to find your “why”, ask yourself the following questions: What will the finished LifeStory be used for? Is this an ongoing project or a one-time interview? Who will be the audience that will view the video? The answer to these and other “end in mind” questions you ask yourself should be answered before you go to the next step. As you can imagine, your next steps would be different if you were recording the stories for a university-type historical archive vs. for a family fun project.

The good news is that you, and only you, get to decide your “why”, and there are no wrong answers! Your “why” is your “why”. If other people want to chime in with their opinions, they can, but you are the ultimate decision maker. So I encourage you to explore the end in mind with great thought…and be sure to write down your “why”. You might need to reference it as we work through the process of recording a LifeStory.

In my following post, we will begin exploring the next step, the pre-interview process. The fun is just beginning!

Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide

I’ve become a Tom Brokaw fan. From his reporting as an anchorman for NBC News, to his great book, The Greatest Generation , where he beautifully describes his father’s generation of World War II vets, I have admired his focus and style of storytelling. This morning’s discovery reinforced the positive admiration I have for his work. I watched his documentary on USA Network Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide . It is showing again soon and I encourage everyone to watch it.

I cannot say it better than the description on USA’s website:

Nearly fifty years since the beginning of the civil rights movement in America, what is the status today of racism, religious freedom, equality for women, gay rights, access for people with disabilities, bullying among kids and more? Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide dives head first into these complex issues facing the nation’s increasingly diverse population, and looks at the impact of the current economy, the rise of technology, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Brokaw speaks to a wide array of experts to get beyond the salacious headlines and provide a truer and more complete picture of where the country stands.

He’ll also introduce us to champions of change, ordinary citizens doing extraordinary work in communities around the country to help put an end to social injustice.

What action should you take based on the new knowledge you will learn from his documentary? Pick from among the many causes and issues he highlights and get involved in any way you see fit. You will then be part of the solution rather than either part of the problem or a person who stands by and does nothing. Please remember the words of Edmund Burke,  “All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.”


The Story Behind the Story – Why Blind Willie Johnson’s (and yours) is Important

At this year’s Thanksgiving table, the group of family and friends that gathered discussed why we think (or don’t think) our own stories are important enough to record. One answer was, “Who’s going to read it, anyway?” The answer came to me this morning as I was reading a well-written article by Michael Hall in this month’s (December 2010) Texas Monthly magazine. The article is entitled, “The Soul of a Man – Who Was Blind Willie Johnson?” .

Blind Willie Johnson was an African-American who made his living singing and playing a cheap guitar “…traveling (Texas) and singing, going from town to town, corner to corner, church to church, revival to revival.” He recorded thirty songs between 1927 and 1930 and, for a brief period of time, was a recording star, outselling the renown blues singer Bessie Smith during the Great Depression. “By the sixties, Johnson had become a hero to folkies and rockers alike,” writes Hall. He influenced folk legends like Bob Dylan, guitarists like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. But when reading his story (and the mysteries that will never be known about Blind Willie), I believe that, if asked while alive if he thought his stories were worth recording, he might have also said, “Who’s going to read them?”

Blind Willie knew only what he thought he knew of his story. He did not know the story behind the story. The stories of how he lost his sight and his path through Texas are fascinating. His story and music has not only influenced modern music legends, but now, since the Texas Monthly article has been published, has undoubtedly has inspired thousands of readers like me. What Blind Willie didn’t know was how the rest of his story would remain a mystery. Michael Hall poses those questions in his article. Those questions create even more intrigue and inspiration to Blind Willie Johnson’s story.

We can never know the story behind our own story. But it is important to realize that there is a story behind our story and those of our loved ones. It is, therefore, our responsibility to record those stories. Who will read them? It doesn’t matter! What matters is that they are recorded. If Blind Willie Johnson would have realized that, his story may have had a positive influence on even more people.