Productive family interview sessions are more difficult than they might seem. At first appearances, a family interview might seem like any other conversation with your parents, grandparents, and siblings. While it’s important to maintain the easy and familiar conversation style, going into a family interview session without a plan can result in a family history book project that is less cohesive and harder to complete.
Here's a few common mistakes to avoid:
1. Not recording the interview sessions
Many family historians are also fantastic writers and notetakers—after all, these skills lend themselves perfectly to family history projects. Nevertheless, notetaking is not a sufficient way to record family history interviews. Not only will notes lose the sense of emotion or tone in the interviewee’s voice, but the natural ebb and flow of the interview will be lost as you have to pause the speaker in order to take notes. Using an audio recorder captures every word that is said and lets you, the family interviewer, focus on your relatives’ stories.
2. Expecting your smartphone to easily record a phone interview
Technology has come a long way—there seems to be an app for everything. Be aware that recording phone conversations can be quite challenging on modern smartphones and is best done with a separate recording device. Affordable, handheld recorders can be purchased from most major retailers, in-store and online.
3. Beginning Unprepared
If we are lucky, we have the opportunity to talk with our relatives all the time: virtually or in-person. Family interviews aren’t the same as normal conversations; instead, uncomfortable (but thoughtful) silences, leading questions, and inspiring prompts should be used to unravel the most important stories and memories from each family member’s life. Sometimes, events, people, and places are so deeply buried that we can’t even find them in our own memories, let alone those of our relatives.
4. Asking “Closed-Ended” Questions
There are two types of questions: closed-ended questions and open-ended questions. Close-ended questions are those that can only be answered in a small handful of ways: “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “I don’t remember.” Closed-ended questions tend to shut the interviewee down and can make the interview process more difficult. Open-ended questions, using words like “how” or “why” create the space for the interviewee to answer in long, story-like answers. This is where the memories really start flowing, and the “meat” of the family history book is found.
The family history book project should be an enlightening and enriching experience—a chance to learn more about your loved ones and have fun! Avoiding these few mistakes will take the initial bumps in the road out of your family interview experience, allowing you to focus on sharing stories and creating your family history project together.
Getting started with your family history interviews? Download our easy-to-follow guide here!