Capturing someone’s life story is a great and worthwhile endeavor. My grandmother was a very influential person in my life. Unfortunately, my son will never know her as I did. Fortunately, I have done life story work with her. Through her life story, one day my son can connect with her personality, her memories, and gain an understanding of the broader historical context in which she grew up.
Benefits of Life Story Interviews
Life stories are not just a gift to future generations. Life story interviews, or even casual reminiscing, have positive outcomes for both the person asking questions and the person being interviewed. Benefits of conducting life story interviews may include:
- Builds self-confidence for both participants
- Meaningful conversations combat feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Helps elderly people resolve conflicts and fears as they reflect on their life
- Preserves family stories and traditions
- Promotes intergenerational connection and understanding
Tips for Carrying Out Life Story Interviews
If you are planning to record a loved one’s life story, it is a good idea to prepare ahead of time. Here is some helpful best practice advice when it comes to a life story interview.
- Have a pre-interview meeting. Before you start your interview it’s a good idea to ask the person you’re interviewing what they hope to get out of this. What do they want people to know or remember about them? What is the legacy they want to leave behind? Do they want to go over their entire life or focus on a specific aspect or part? Is anything off-limits or are they an open book? This will set you up for success, help guide your interview questions and give you a little bit of structure, to begin with.
- Record in multiple formats. Where possible, record the interview on audio and video. If something goes wrong with one file, you have the other as a backup. Additionally, it enables you to sit hands-free and give undivided attention to the person you’re interviewing. Finally, it gives you more material to work with and allows you to experiment with using multiple formats in finished life story you create. Please note, if using a video camera, set it up out of your interviewee’s line of vision. This way, the conversation will feel more natural and there won’t be an obvious distraction.
- Start with easy questions. Naturally, there can be some nervousness at the beginning of an interview. Therefore, it’s best to ease in with some easy, non-intrusive questions and work your way to more difficult or personal ones.
- Don’t do it all at once. It can be hard to answer questions on the spot. We may get asked a question that we churn over and over in our mind, only to come up with an answer or memory days later. If you can, consider taking breaks and doing this interview over a few days, weeks or months. Your loved one may recall memories in the time between your conversations that end up contributing rich reminiscence material to their life story.
- Seek out memory stimulation. We all know that memories are generally ‘triggered’ by external factors like a hearing a song or seeing a photograph. To help your loved one jog memories and connect with their past, have conversations on walks, drive to places that were significant to your loved one, go through boxes of photos and keepsakes, etc.
- Stick to asking open-ended questions (e.g. “Tell me about…”, “Describe what it was like…”, “How did you feel when…”, “Why do you think…”). As you listen to their answers be thinking of immediate follow-up questions that help you dive deeper into the story.
- Practice active-listening techniques.
- Don’t exclusively ask about life events. Reading or listening to a story that is simply recounting a chronological list of life experiences isn’t interesting or engaging. A life story should convey who that person was, not just what happened to them or what they did. When you’re interviewing, ask about their motivations, their fears, their values, beliefs, and personal ideologies.
- Embrace the emotions that come. When reflecting on one’s life it is common for there to be moments of silence, tears of sadness, and topics too painful to speak about. Be sensitive and understanding. Never pressure someone to continue discussing something that is making them uncomfortable. Always show empathy by affirming their emotions and offering a gesture of support like holding their hand or offering a tissue.
- Consider speaking with people who are close to your interviewee. If you have access to the spouse, siblings, friends, or children of the person you’re interviewing, consider speaking to them. You can ask them to tell you about their favorite memories with this person, what he or she has meant to them, what they were like, etc. Having these supplemental stories and perspectives can enhance the whole picture you create of who this person is and what he or she meant to those around them.
When you've finished your interviews, be sure to read our guide on How to Start Writing a Life Story.
For a simple, guided way to digitally record and store life histories for yourself or a loved one, check out Storii.