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Improve Your Family History Interviews By Asking the Right Questions

Senior couple talking about family history

Do you want to interview a family member and capture rich family history information? The best way to have an awesome experience is to ask the right questions.

Before talking with your relative, determine what you want to know about your shared family history. What you hope to discover will heavily influence the questions you ask.

Fact vs Story Based Family History Interviews

Generally, there are two types of information that you want to gather when interviewing a relative.

  1. You want facts to fill out the family tree.

  2. You want stories to make family history less boring.

Both kinds of information are invaluable to your genealogical research. What types of questions fall under each category?

Fact-Based Questions for Family History Interviews

“Just the Facts, Ma’am” The goal of these questions is to add content to your family tree.

  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.

Story-Based Questions for Family History Interviews

“Tell Me a Story” - These questions want to help you build a strong link to the past, no matter how positive or negative it may be.

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 the life choices that you are aware of that your relative made. They stem from stories or tidbits you’ve heard from various other family members.

These questions depend on you knowing the person you’re interviewing well. 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.

Fact and Story-Based Questions for Family History Interviews

This third type of question can give you facts or stories depending on where your relative 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.

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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Skip the List When Talking With Family Members

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 should also utilize memory triggers or flip through photo albums and ask your relatives to share the story behind the pictures.

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.

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

The best family history interviews do not depend on questions. Instead, the focus on gathering stories. Once you turn your family member into a chatterbox, then you can ask clarification questions.

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