The Power of Sharing Life Stories: A Step by Step Guide and Resources for Interviewing Our Elders

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. - Muriel Rukeyser Quote

Our lives are built on stories. Stories are how we organize and retain memories. Through storytelling, we define who we are as individuals both to ourselves and to the world. We wake up in the morning anticipating the narrative of our day and go to sleep at night to dream in stories. We construct the histories of our families, communities, and nations via stories told across generations and, increasingly, with the help of print and social media, great distances.

Elders are our living repositories of personal, family and general history. As our connections to the past and guides for the future, they offer us an invaluable gift by sharing their life experiences, knowledge and insights. Simple oral history interview techniques elicit these stories and offer a variety of possibilities for extending our elders’ reach across time and space.

There are a myriad of benefits for the senior storyteller, family and community members who are the beneficiaries of the audio or video recording, book, cookbook, family tree, tribute, website or other material that comes out of an oral history interaction. Interviewing itself is a fun and intimate activity that strengthens the bonds between storytellers and those asking questions. It can reduce an elder’s sense of isolation and provide an opportunity, particularly for those struggling with memory loss, to review life experiences and revitalize one’s sense of self. Research has shown that a strong family narrative may be the secret ingredient to more effective, resilient and happy families. As reported in the New York Times, children who know more about their family’s history ― the peaks and valleys ― tend to do better when faced with their own challenges, and enjoy a greater sense of control over their lives.

If you are interested in strengthening the ties that bind, but are not sure how to get started, here are the basic rules of thumb:

1. Plan the interview.

Figure out the who, what, where, when and how of the interview. Who do you want to interview? Who else will attend ― will it be a one-on-one exchange, or will others help facilitate? What will you do with the stories you gather, and what format will you use to bring these stories to life? Where is the most quiet and comfortable place to hold the interview? When is the best time of day when your storyteller is most alert and social? How will you record the interview? Will you do a single interview or a series?

Ask your elder for permission and agree on a date and time. Even with a close relative, it is helpful to provide a one page sheet with the interview details: timing, purpose, and format. The length of the interview should be based on the storyteller’s stamina and interest: 45 minutes for those who fatigue easily, 90 minutes to 2 hours for interviewees bursting with stories.

One-on-one interviews can be the most meaningful and relaxed exchanges. However, it may be easier for the interviewer to have a facilitator to set up and handle the video or audio-recording equipment, watch the time and take photographs. Having other family or friends present may help prompt memories.

Start at StoryCorps’ Memory Loss Initiative and download the Commemorate Toolkit, a comprehensive, user-friendly kit for interviewing elders whether experiencing memory loss or not. Excellent online guides to doing oral history interviews are available at The American Folklife Center, Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History and Association of Personal Historians (APH) Tips Before You Get Started, and Cornell University’s The Legacy Project. To get ideas on the variety of ways to use and publish personal narratives, visit APH’s What Format Do You Want?

2. Develop interview questions.

Draw up a list of 10 to 15 questions. Ease into the interview with simple what and where questions. Build up to bigger, more complex why and how questions or anything that could potentially spark an emotional response (good or bad). Stay away from questions with one word “yes” or “no” answers or that focus on a specific memory or detail. Ask open-ended general questions ― What were you like as a child? Who was the most influential person in your life? How did you and mom meet?

Get questions ideas from: StoryCorps’ Great Questions, The Huffington Post’s 7 Questions We Need To Ask Every Older Person, and PBS’ Taking a Spiritual Inventory.

3. Choose recording equipment.

Decide on recording equipment: a cell phone, computer, tablet, a video camera or digital voice recorder. Professional interviewers use digital voice recorders (compact, easy to pause, filters out background noise and designed to pick up voices ― particularly good if the speaker’s voice is weak). There is a learning curve to using them and to transferring digital data to a computer or other sound media. Have a back-up such as a cell phone recorder available for the interview. Test the recording equipment and your questions in a mock interview.

4. Additional items to bring.

Photographs, family heirlooms, and memorabilia are good to have on hand to help jog memories and prompt specific stories; a notepad for the interviewer to jot down notes to keep track of conversation threads and questions that arise over the course of the interview; and a well-chosen gift (favorite food, flowers, or a framed photograph) to express your gratitude for the storyteller’s time.

5. Interview Set-up.

Test the recording equipment and arrange the seating for optimum sound and comfort. If you are doing the interview in a retirement or care home, make sure that you have addressed accessibility issues and that the interview site is quiet and private. Have glasses of water available for interview participants.

6. The interview.

Begin the interview by welcoming and thanking the storyteller and restating the interview purpose. Confirm that you have permission to record and share. Emphasize that the point of the interview is not to discuss facts but to have a casual conversation, to tell stories and have a good time. Start the recording by introducing yourself and the storyteller, the date and place of the interview.

Use your question list as a flexible guide. Let the conversation take a natural course. Encourage the speaker with your words (“tell me more”), expressions and with relaxed and enthusiastic body language. If the storyteller digresses (we all do), let him. For storytellers with more severe memory problems inclined to repetition, ask new questions and gently redirect the speaker by offering memories of your own or using visual prompts. Sharing songs, foods, or smells from someone’s past can also stimulate recall.

When the end of the session time is approaching, indicate the interview is coming to a close by stating the time left and that you would like to ask a few final questions. This is a good time to ask if the interviewee has anything further to add and if she would like to continue the interview another time. Thank the senior storyteller. Photograph the participants. Inform the storyteller when you will get back to her.

7. Ethics and etiquette.

Good interviews are built on trust. You must get consent from the person being interviewed, either oral or written, before and after interview, even if it is your mother or uncle, or someone whose eyesight or hearing is compromised. If something comes up during the interview the storyteller would rather not have on record, offer to turn the recording device off or edit it out later. Unless the storyteller is not able, or explicitly does not wish to do so, give him the opportunity to review the interview, make additions and deletions and have a say in the final product.

Be well-prepared, a keen listener, patient, adaptive, creative, respectful and turn off cell phones or media devices (they distract participants and send a message, particularly to elders, of disinterest)!

8. Finalize the interview.

Transfer the interview to a computer to print out or burn copies on CD or DVD. Schedule a time for your storyteller to review and make changes the interview before sharing it with others. Bring the photographs you took at the interview to give to the storyteller. When the interview is in its final format, give the storyteller a copy and share it widely with family and community.

9. Don’t want to DIY?

You can enlist the help of a Personal Historian. Start at the APH website to find a personal historian in your area. Some PHs specialize in working with elder narrators with depression, dementia and hearing loss. The APH offers a suite of services and products that help with interviewing, transcribing, editing, writing, scanning photos and archiving to producing a genealogy or family tree, a book, memoir, heritage cookbook, a website or blog, legacy statement or ethical will, or video tribute or memorial, to name a few.

Dr Lisa GollinGuest Post by Dr. Lisa Gollin, University of Hawaii
Dr. Lisa Gollin is an ethnographer in Hawaii. She specializes in oral history interviews with elders on cultural practices and land use, as well as social science research on medical, community health and environmental topics. Lisa’s research has taken her frequently to Indonesia where she has focused on ethnobotany, health and healing with medicinal plants and has been adopted into a Kenyah Dayak family in Borneo. For fun, occasional profit, and in anticipation of her own anectdotage, she gathers offbeat stories from her travels in Indonesia, Madagascar, Bhutan and elsewhere to share with friends and family.

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