What questions should you ask your relatives before they die?


Do you struggle coming up with questions for interviewing a relative? You know that preparing questions ahead of time, but what should you ask? Should you rattle off items on the Pinterest discovery “20 best questions for interviewing relatives”? Take time before your interview to determine what you want to know. What you hope to discover will heavily influence the questions you prepare.


Generally, there are two types of information that you want to get from an interviewee. You would like to get facts or you want to get stories. Both kinds of information are invaluable to your genealogical research.

Be sure that you watch this video, so you don’t make the two biggest mistakes in interviewing a relative. Watch this video on YouTube.


Watch this video.


Fact vs Story Questions for Family History Interviews


It’s okay to have a mixture of fact and story questions. “Just the Facts, Ma’am” When you were trying to get facts from someone your interview will be heavily scripted. You will have a list of questions that would be like these:

  1. What date did that happen?

  2. Who was grandma’s mother?

  3. How do you spell Uncle Earl’s middle name?

  4. What is the address of your first home?

  5. When and where did you get married?

These questions are heavily influenced by the data gaps in your genealogical charts. Review your family trees to generate questions that the person you are interviewing might be able to answer.

“Tell Me a Story” Family History Interviews


Story-based interviews are just that, you’re asking story-based questions like these:

  1. How did you meet your spouse?

  2. Why were you a roadie in a rock band?

  3. Why did you move to Beaumont, Texas from Palo, Iowa?

  4. Why did you never become a nurse when that was your heart’s desire?

Story-based questions are often triggered by stories or life choices that you are aware of that your interviewee made. They stem from stories or tidbits you’ve heard from various family members. These questions depend on you knowing the person you’re interviewing well.


“Where Do You Want to Go?” Interviews


If you know little about the background of the person you are interviewing, you could plan on having numerous fact-based questions. Then, make sure you turn the control of the interview over to the person you’re questioning.


This third type of question can give you facts or stories depending on where the interviewee wants to take you. These open-ended questions often start with “Tell me about…”

  1. “Tell me about your childhood.”

  2. Tell me about a nightmare you remember.

  3. Tell me about your favorite dress when you were younger.

Open-ended questions lead toward a free-flowing story interview, with follow up questions to gather specific facts. One reason this open format is fun is you never know what you are going to find out.


Another reason is that open-ended questions give control of the interview to the interviewee. They can tell as much detail as they want about events in their life.


Be careful that you don’t place unnecessary limits on your open-ended questions. For instance, “Tell me about your childhood,” is much better than “What did you like to do when you were 8 years old?”


This specific age reference can confuse someone because maybe what they share is what they liked when they were 10 or 5.


If you just say, “Tell me about what you liked when you were a child,” it’s much easier. Your interviewee does not have to strive to remember exactly what they liked at a specific age.


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“List or Not List” Family History Interviews


You may be tempted to just find a list of interview questions using Google or Pinterest. You will be better served by deciding what you want to learn from the person you’re interviewing -- facts or stories. You can also plan a variety of fact-based, story-based, and open-ended questions.


It's Not About the Questions, It's About the Stories


While you likely came hoping to find the ultimate list of questions to ask your family members before they died.


You can find memory triggering questions through this post.


The truth of the matter, is you want to get a relative talking about anything and everything. Once they are chatterboxes, then you can ask clarification questions.


Or better yet, grab a photo album and say, "Tell me about these photos."


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