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?

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.

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.” 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 . 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

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 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 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.