3 Memory Trigger Exercises for Your Next Interview

Preparing to interview a family member can be super exciting. But for many interviewers, they are uncertain what they want to ask the interviewee. Meanwhile, many interviewees are nervous about what you’re going to ask them and whether they are going to remember. Here are three ways you can put your interview we at ease and discuss stories that will give you a richer deeper family history and family history interview.

Five Event Timeline

This activity should be done in less than five minutes and capture the top of the mind memories. Before the interview, have the interviewee draw a horizontal line across a sheet of paper. At the left end of your line, draw a vertical line. On the right end of the line, draw a second vertical line. In between those two lines, draw three additional vertical lines equally spaced apart.

You should have a sketch that looks like this.

With these five lines, you’re ready for your memory trigger exercise. Beneath the line on the left, have the interviewee write a few words that refer to their earliest childhood memory. Take the first memory that pops into their head in 30 seconds or less. Beneath the line on the far right, record a recent event. One that happened that today or within the last week. Again, the idea should pop into their mind in under 30 seconds. Beneath the additional three lines, record words that describe events that happened between childhood and recent event memories. Set a short time limit of 2 minutes or less.

With this sketch, start your interview. Ask your interviewee to further explain those five memories. Within those memories, you’ll hear things that prompt additional questions you want to ask. Ask them!

This exercise can be repeated often in different interview sessions to pull out the stories, rather than just the facts, of a relative’s life.

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Memory Aides

Before an interview, pull out things from around your home, on your walls, or stored in a box that helps you discuss events in your life. Perhaps a quilt that was made or was a gift. Perhaps a book that you enjoyed reading as a child. Perhaps a piece of jewelry, sports memorabilia, a trophy, or clothing. Memory aids may also include pictures, lots of pictures.

When you begin the interview,  discuss the stories or the memories associated with these items. In so doing, You will have a richer, deeper collection of family stories than if you use a list of “best questions to ask your family members” that flood the internet and genealogy how-to books.  Give your possessions and photos stories, and your interview will be so much easier for you and the person you are interviewing.

Draw a House

Another sketch that you can draw before you begin an interview, is to ask the interviewee to draw a floor plan for their home. The floor plan could be their childhood home, the home when they were first married, or the home they had with all of their children. The floor plans can be as detailed or simple as the interviewee once.

During the interview, have the interviewee walk you through the house using the floor plan as their guide. Have them describe which room belongs to each family member and how those rooms were decorated. Have them describe what was on the walls and the floor. Have them describe what activities were done in each room. When they visually walk into the kitchen, have them describe the common smells of common dishes served.  When you have people remember walking through their homes, you will be surprised at the additional memories that can be triggered and the depth you will have for their life stories.

If you have an ancestor that grew up on a farm, a ranch, or in an urban area, consider having them draw maps outside of their homes. Have your interviewee draw the land around their home. Where was the orchard, the garden, the creek, and the neighbors? Wherewith the animal stalls and how many animals did their family keep.  If they lived in an urban area, where was the school, grocery store, swimming pool, baseball field, or church. With these sketches, have them walk you through the different memories they have of the places they lived.

Use these three techniques to put your interviewee at ease when you interview them for family and personal histories. Do you have any other great memory trigger exercises that help put your interviewee at ease and draw out wonderful family stories? Leave them in the comment section below.

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