No time for small talk: tips for recording your own StoryCorps-style family stories this holiday

Love hearing StoryCorps family stories on the radio or podcast? Start recording your own this year

Published December 24, 2016 1:00PM (EST)


Emily Janssen of StoryCorps spent 18 months on the road in an Airstream trailer in 2014, stopping in 15 cities to help more than 500 people save bits and pieces of their life stories. It was a long journey, but what came out of it was a myriad of unique memories that are now preserved forever. For those who recorded their stories it was a relief, and, many would say, a blessing. StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world,” according to their website. Around the holidays, many of us have an opportunity to gather with relatives we don’t see often, notes Janssen, and it’s a rare chance to record the stories of our elders.

Last year, more than 100,000 individuals from all 50 states took part in StoryCorps’ The Great Thanksgiving Listen, their national education project that asks high school students to record conversations with their elders. And while the numbers haven’t come in for this year’s project, it’s clear that there’s something to be said for connecting the younger generations to the past through their grandparents’ experiences.

“We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations,” says StoryCorps’ website.

According to the results of two listener surveys of more than 600 people conducted by StoryCorps in 2015, participating in the recording of stories increased understanding of people with a disability or serious illness (96 percent), increased understanding of immigrants (95 percent), increased understanding of Latinos (94 percent) and increased understanding of African-Americans (91 percent). Eighty-eight percent of listeners strongly agreed that StoryCorps makes them feel connected to people with different backgrounds, with 81 percent reminded of their shared humanity. StoryCorps helped listeners see the value in everyone’s life story and experience (80 percent) and humanize social issues, events and policies (80 percent). It led listeners to think of people different from themselves as an important part of society (78 percent), become interested in thinking about how society could be improved (71 percent) and feel more positive about society (70 percent). In these times, having a greater understanding of ourselves, our history, our neighbors and humanity is a wise pursuit.

As some readers know, when I am not wearing my journalism hat I am a personal and family historian, saving family and personal stories for private clients. I do get paid for some of what I do, but I also offer free talks to nonprofits and other groups about the import of saving their elders’ stories as I failed to do when my mother was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago. I didn’t have the chance to save her stories when she asked me to, and so I see the work of teaching people how to do the work themselves as paying it forward. I evangelize to audiences and particularly to younger people, imploring them to care now, not later. As a result, perhaps, I see more people caring — showing the kind of love to their families and elders that often falls aside in the face of busy work and home lives and omnipresent technology. It’s like the old adage, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” If more people know how to do this work, both StoryCorps and I argue, they can help themselves save the stories of their lives.

Our very lives, we owe to our elders. So this holiday season, I want to give each and every Salon reader a gift of foresight, of legacy, of hope.

Here are some story-saving interview tips -- from StoryCorps and me -- for your holiday weekend and beyond:

1. Make a list of questions. Decide what you want to talk about. Think about how long you want to conduct your interview for.

2. Decide who you want to interview. Figure out who and how many, and what you want to ask him/her/them about.  Then, ask the person to do an interview with you. Be warned that many elders feel their story is not important. Be prepared to convince them otherwise.

3. Practice! Do a test interview using the free StoryCorps app on your smartphone or tablet. Make sure you have enough storage space on the device — at least 500MB of available space is ideal. (Note: If using a smartphone, set your device to airplane mode so you will not be interrupted by calls or texts.)

4. Find a good time and place to do your interview(s). Sit in a quiet space that feels comfortable. Rooms without strong acoustics are better; carpets, furniture and soft surfaces absorb noise and can buffer ambient sounds you don’t want to record. Avoid large, empty rooms or public places with loud sounds like crowds that you cannot anticipate.

5. Sit close to the person, and look at them when speaking. This is a personal experience, and they are sharing information that is vital to your history. Make sure they feel your interest.

6. Ask them to start sentences with “I” or the full response to the question, so that if you are listening later and do not hear your question, you can still understand the answer. For example: You ask, “When were you born?” and the subject should answer, “I was born in 1936,” not just “1936.”

7. Be very patient with your subject. Some people are shy, or may take time to put their answers together. Know that they may care very much about “getting it right.”

8. Do not step on your subject’s answers by interrupting or asking follow-up questions until you are certain they are done speaking. Take turns speaking.

9. Do not ask “yes” or “no” questions. Make them open-ended and general when possible, to get the most interesting and fulsome response.

10. There’s no right answer and no wrong answer. There’s probably a lot about their lives that you don’t know anything about: move with curiosity.

11. Begin your conversation with a real appreciation for the person you’re sitting with, and gratitude for them. Just be curious. Don’t worry about being perfect or think of it as a performance. Have a conversation and think about what you’d like to know and ask.

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By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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