How to Record Your Parents' Life Story
I wish I would've captured their stories!
This is one of the first thoughts that comes to mind after a parent dies. Recording a loved one's life story is always something we intend to do, but it often remains an intention until it's too late. The to-do lists pile up, we have kids of our own to care for, work gets busy, our family moves away, etc. Whatever the reasons or excuses are, we always regret them later. If your loved one is still here and you want to record their history, make the time! Do it while you have the chance. Let this article serve as a reminder that recording your parents' life story doesn't have to be a huge, labor-intensive process. Here's a simple how-to you can (and should) follow:
Decide on the life story format
There are a few options to consider:
Audio Recording: Using the Voice Notes/Memo app on your smartphone and a lavalier microphone (or an old school recorder), conduct and record a life story interview. This could be done in segments and recorded like podcast episodes. This is a fantastic option if your parent is a particularly great storyteller, they get nervous around a video camera, or you want a creative way of separating out their life history into distinct parts.
Video Recording: Video is arguably the most compelling format to record your parent's life story. There is nothing quite as special as being able to see your loved one's face again after they've been gone for awhile. It's like having them in the room with you. Personality really comes through in body language and expressions, which are most evident on film. It's a wonderful thing to be able to share the essence of your loved one with future generations who did not get to meet them. Taking bandwidth and storage into consideration, you can record a video interview on your smartphone or a dSLR video camera. For video, you will want a tripod and a lavalier to enhance the quality. We'd also recommend recording indoors in a spot with a lot of natural light so you aren't competing with outdoor noise and elements.
Life Story Book: A quick Google search will evidence that there are many great life story book services to choose from! Most will allow you to upload photos to accompany the text, so be sure to scan old photos you want to use onto your computer. You will have to go through your interview recording and decide how you want to tell the story of your loved one's life. Do you want to go chronologically? Are there certain parts of their legacy that you want to focus on? Books make excellent gifts and they can be wonderful additions to a coffee table or mantle, where you can easily pick it up and be transported into your loved one's story.
Professional Production: Hiring a professional service is the best option for those whose number one concern is quality. It is also ideal for people who are more strapped for time than cash. You can hire any video production company, but it is possible to find bespoke companies that specialize in capturing life bios. This means they come with the fancy gear AND the interview skills. This is important. Plenty of people know how to professionally light a room and edit hours of footage, but interviewing older people (especially where there might be cognitive impairment or emotionally difficult stories) involves skills and training to do professionally. Furthermore, you might find that your parent is more open and honest with their story when speaking to a stranger, rather than their own child. To find a service like this, try Googling "life story video" or "video biography" and the city or state where your parent lives.
Self-guided Service: Another great option for busy people would be taking advantage of online services like Storii or LifeBio. These businesses enable your parents to record their life history at their own pace and in their own way. Ideal for those who live long distance from their parents or are looking for a meaningful gift that will support your loved one to reminisce and enjoy a new project. They can create an online, instant biography for a small fee. With hundreds of life story question prompts, they can design their own template and answer questions in the format of their choice. Those answers can easily be shared with friends and family or later exported for creating a book or saving a hardcopy file.
Gather supporting elements
Once you've decided how you're going to format the life story, gather up all the bits and pieces that will really bring them to life. Doing this before the interview will actually help you become aware of potential stories, relevant topics, questions to ask, and who else to interview.
If you're using audio, consider adding in songs that your parent associates with a specific memory. If they grew up on a farm, you might incorporate some background noise of chickens clucking or driving on a gravel road. When creating a life story book, pick out photos you want to include. You might even find other memorabilia that could be scanned in and uploaded like newspaper clippings, birth certificates, love letters, ticket stubs, etc. If using video footage, are there certain places, people, or things your parent wants to include or showcase? Is there any B-roll footage or old family videos that would support the production?
Conduct the interviews
Will this life story include interviews with a spouse, friends or other family members? You might end up gathering other stories or perspectives to help paint a full picture of who your parent was and what they were known and loved for. Whether you plan to do the interview in one-go, or break it up into various sessions over a period of time, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Know what gear you're going to use, where you're going to do this, what questions you want to ask, and for how long
- Ask open-ended questions and learn about their motivations, fears, beliefs, etc. Not just about what they did and when.
- Save files on a cloud-based platform so you have it backed up
- Embrace emotions, offer empathy, and be sensitive to their pace
Take a look at more life story interview tips.
Organize and edit your material
This is the part that takes people the longest. Many find it beneficial to enlist the help of a professional when it comes to editing, whether it's audio, video or text. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to organize a life story. That said, there is an art to storytelling and it's a good idea to look at other examples for creative inspiration. You could:
- Categorize the interviews by subject matter and weave together the interviews by stories or periods of time
- Organize the interviews by time (e.g. childhood, adolescence, adult years)
- Decide on an overarching theme or legacy. Then select and order interviews that directly contribute.
Share before making the final cut
Share a draft of your loved one's life story with them and other close family members before you finalize the piece. This allows them to give you feedback on any factual errors, gaps in history, images or materials they don't want included, etc. Each family has unique dynamics and sensitive subjects, but do your best to ensure everyone is comfortable with the final product.