20 Best Tips for Interviewing Family - Genealogy Basics


Family sharing genealogy stories during an family history interview

Don't make one of the biggest mistakes beginning genealogists make- that of waiting until it's too late to talk to their relatives. Family history begins and ends with stories, and those stories are often in the minds of our relatives.


Channel your gift of gab and start talking to your relatives.


What You Need Before Interviewing Relatives


Before we talk gear, we need to talk mindset. If you want to access the past, you have to build a relationship of trust with your family members. You also have to approach your 'interview' as a chance to talk.


Few people love to be interviewed about their past and their family history, except if they're helping a grandchild with a quick family history project for the elementary years.


The most important thing you'll need is the right mindset.


You want to listen to stories and memories of the past because you love the relative you're talking to.


Prepare To Interview Your Family Member


In the past, I recommended gathering a notepad and an audio recorder. Today, you still might want a notepad, but you don't need an audio recorded when you have your phone.

  • Know what style of interview you want to conduct. For instance, formal or informal?

  • Next, prepare memory triggers. These are drawings and timelines to help organize your family member's thoughts.

  • Gather (or invite your relative to gather) memory aids such as photos, artifacts, or documents. These will open the doors to the past faster than a question, "What was your childhood like?"

  • Know what types of questions you want to ask based on the goals of your interview.

  • Prepare a list of possible questions that you want to ask, but be flexible enough to allow for 'off-topic' story trails.


These tips, and more, are covered in this video.


video Awesome Family History Interviews  with Devon Noel Lee


What to Do Before Interviewing Your Family Member


Get Permission to Record


If your relative grants you permission, record their voice only, or capture a video. If your family member is hesitant to be on camera, remind them that you'll miss seeing them when they pass away. A video will keep them in your memory for many years to come.


Granted, you'll want to reassure the family member that you're not hastening their demise. You don't know what tomorrow will bring, and you want to ensure that you don't lose this moment in time.


Set Up Your Recording Device


If you're using a video chat, test out the record feature to ensure you're capturing the video and audio. (Also, make sure your family member is well lit.)


If you're recording a phone call, make sure your cell phone can record a call while it happens.


Suppose you're interviewing in person, set up your camera on a tripod with an external microphone near your family member. Test the sound to ensure you don't hear distracting background noise and your relative is loud enough.


Make Your Relative Comfortable


If your relative is not sitting comfortably, has blinding lights in the face, or other distractions, they won't spill the beans. Ensure they are relaxed.


Also, let them know you won't be offering any sound encouragement as they speak. You want to make sure their story is told without interruption.


Let your relative know they can talk, ask for breaks, passes on questions, or any accommodation if they feel uncomfortable.



What To Do While Interviewing Your Relative


Andy has shared in a video about the biggest mistakes you can make while talking to your relatives about their history. They involve not focusing on the star of the interview. Be sure to watch that video. In the meantime, follow this advice.


Let your relative speak, uninterrupted, wherever their memories take them. You can ask for clarification after they finish a tale.


Be quite. You can laugh when they tell a funny story. In all other situations, use only non-verbal encouragement as they tell their story. You'll thank me for this tip when you decide to piece together the audio or video into a family history video.


Take 'notes' during the interview. These are not dictations of what was said, but rather questions triggered as your loved ones share a story. Things like:

  • Who did you say your neighbor was?

  • What was the name of the park where you met Lousie?

  • Did you learn anything from this experience?

  • What happened next?

Be sensitive. Trips down memory lane evoke a lot of emotions. Tears from missing loved ones, regret, pain, or wistful hopes things could return to the way they were. Additionally, not every relative can quickly recall the stories they long to share.


  • Allow your family member to feel their feelings in a loving environment.

  • Be patient as they slowly tell their stories.

Build a relationship of trust and compassion if you want to uncover some of your most cherished family history stories.


What To Do After Interviewing Your Family Member


Once you've finished talking to your relatives about their past and your common ancestors, you're job as a family historian has just begun. Do the following things to ensure your ancestor's time benefits many.

  1. Backup Your Files - Make multiple copies of your audio and

  2. Digitize Your Loved One's Artifacts - Scan or photograph any items your relatives share with you during the interview. You can use the FamilySearch Mobile App or the MyHeritage Mobile App to add these images to your family trees quickly.

  3. Edit the Files - You can use an audio editing program like Audacity or a video editing program like Pinnacle Studio or iMovie to edit the interview. You want to cut out the flubs, filler words, and rearrange the stories, so they flow better. Make your relative look A-MA-ZING in the recording

  4. Transcribe the Files - you can either type what your relative said as they say it or use Rev or Temi to capture captions. (Personally, I upload the video to YouTube, and then edit auto-captions. It's free with a Google Account.)

  5. Share clips of the interview - You can upload audio files to the FamilySearch Memories app in 5-minutes or less segments.

  6. Update your family tree - using sites like MyHeritage, Ancestry, FamilySearch, and FindMyPast; you can take any new knowledge gained and update your family tree. Your source to cite will be this interview.

  7. Create something - Whether you write a book, create a scrapbook, or make a video, do something with the interview that pieces together the photos, documents, artifacts, and stories into one enjoyable format. To learn how to create family history videos, check out my webinar.


Go Talk To Your Relatives and Connect To The Past


Now that you know what to do before, during, and after the conversation with your family member, it's time to take action.


Be sure you have read or watched all the additional preservation tips and then set a date with your relatives.


Now is the time to build the foundation of your family history journey. Please don't wait until it's too late. The memories and keepsakes of your loved ones are perishable, and you never know when they'll be lost to time and eternity.


More Family History Interview and Memory Keeping Tips


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