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



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.


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” 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:

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.

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.