Category Archives: Life stories

Encore! Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work?

Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work? It’s not uncommon for those starting out in the personal history business to offer their expertise at rock bottom rates. And while this might be important for the first project or two, it’s definitely not a plan for financial solvency and success in the long run. How much are you charging per hour for your personal history services? To give you some idea of where your fees fit with others, I’ve compiled some lists. From PayScale here are … Read More

How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain?

That’s the question some of my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians  have recently been examining.

Some feel that details count because they can enrich a life story by providing a social history context for it. They suggest that what might be tedious to the interviewer could in fact be fascinating to family members now and in the future.

Other personal historians  see a  need to be selective with details, choosing only those that enhance a story – sifting out the chaff and creating a more readable and entertaining narrative.

But the debate about how much detail to include is better settled after thinking through the following questions:

Is this a book or video life story?

In the previous article Book or Video? Which Makes a Better Personal History? I extolled the strengths and weaknesses of both print and video.

Books are more suited to detail than video. Video’s strength is in storytelling, broad strokes, and emotional content.

What’s the budget?

If you want detail,  it’s going to take time and time costs money. Ten or more hours of interview isn’t uncommon for a full life story.

While your client might want their very own version of Gone with the Wind, their budget restrictions point to a more modest affair like Swayed by the Breeze. ;-)

How open and revealing is your storyteller?

Some people  need little prompting to unleash a wealth of detailed stories. Then there are those who are more reticent. No matter how sensitive and clever your questions, you’re lucky to get the bare bones of the person’s life.

What kind of questions are you asking?

The interview is at the core of a comprehensive and entertaining personal history. I’ve written extensively about the art of interviewing in 11 Articles on Interviewing .

If you want to get the stories behind a life,  avoid questions that focus exclusively on names, dates, and places. Instead, use open-ended questions that begin with How, Where, When, What, and Why. And don’t read from a series of scripted questions. Make sure to go deeper with prompts like “And then what happened?”

Conclusion

I believe that details can enrich a life story. Ultimately though, we’re  hired as professionals to edit and weave those details into a coherent and engaging story.

Photo by Chris Beckett

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Encore! 4 Reasons Why You Need to Hire a Book Designer.

4 Reasons Why You Need to Hire a Book Designer. “You know a design is good when you want to lick it.”~ Steve Jobs

We all love good design. That’s why the iPod and Ikea have been so successful. Design is the difference between something that is OK and something that is memorable. If you hope to have a successful personal history business producing books, you’ll want to include a designer on your team. Here  are four important benefits of good design. Good design affects … Read More


Encore! Stop With The Effects!

Stop With The Effects! Have you noticed an annoying trend? Every videographer from “Cousin Harry” in Saskatoon to the BBC in London is causing our eyes and ears  to bleed with cranked up sound and tightly edited, over-the-top visual effects. Today, even the simplest home editing software  has a myriad of “bells and whistles”. You can use the “Ken Burns” effect to pan or  zoom in and out of photos. You can have dazzling titles and credits not to mention fancy dissolves … Read More


Do You Make These 5 Common Audio Mistakes?

Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve just completed videotaping an hour-long interview. It was  nicely lit and framed. And the interview itself was fantastic! Excitedly you rush back to your editing suite,  put up your interview to screen, and then the shock. The picture looks great but the audio is terrible. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. The interview is ruined!

I know that getting flawless sound all the time is nearly impossible. But you can improve the odds if you avoid making these 5 common audio mistakes.

1. Using the wrong microphone

All microphones are not created equal. The worse choice is using the microphone that comes with your video or audio recorder. These are passable for family events but not for a professional interview.  Built-in mics  pick-up the electronic clicks and whirs of the equipment and are sensitive to any hand contact.

Don’t use wireless mics for interviews unless you plan to spend the big bucks. Inexpensive wireless mics can pick up frequency interference from a host of sources such as cell phones, TV stations, CD players, computers, and PDAs.

Your best bet for interviews is to use a lapel mic or shotgun mic mounted on a stand. This will ensure better sound quality because the mic can be placed close to the subject.

2. not eliminating Background noise

Nothing spoils an interview more than background noise. You need to have the ears of a bat to eliminate unwanted sounds..

Make certain to turn off or unplug everything that you’ve control over. This includes heating and cooling systems,  refrigerators and freezers, radios and music players,  cell and land line telephone, and ticking clocks. Also make sure to close outside windows and the door to the interview room.

Before starting the interview put on your headphones and listen carefully for any stray background noise. If you’ve done your job thoroughly, all you should hear is the faint breathing of your subject.

3. Not using headphones

If you’re not wearing headphones, you can’t adequately monitor the quality of the audio you’re recording. Over-the ear headphones are the best. Spend some money and invest in a good pair. Failing that, anything is better than nothing. Even the earbuds from your iPod will do in a pinch.

4. recording with Automatic gain control

Unfortunately,  most consumer video and audio recorders come with Automatic Gain Control or AGC. While it’s easier to record sound it also produces poor quality.

The problem is that the gain control monitors the loudness or quietness of what you’re recording and automatically adjusts the level. For example, when the interviewee pauses, the AGC raises the recording level which in turn causes an increases in the ambient sound. When the person begins talking again the recording level is lowered. This produces a pulsing effect with the ambient sound that’s difficult to eliminate without time consuming sound editing.

Do yourself a favor and spend enough to purchase a recorder that has a manual gain control. It’ll mean monitoring your audio input continually, but you’ll end up with good sound.

5. Failing to eliminate electronic hum and buzz

Electromagnetic radiation or EMR  is produced by such devices as power cables, computer monitors, radios, and TVs. Placing your video or audio recorder and audio cables next to these EMR sources can result in an audible hum or buzz.

Make sure that all your recording equipment is separated as far as possible from these EMR sources. Even a few inches can make a difference. If that’s not possible, try crossing your power cable at right angles to your mic cables.

the bottom line

Don’t push the record button until you’ve done everything possible to ensure that your audio will be pristine.

Photo by Alper Tecer

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Are You Asking the Courageous Questions?

“The key point [of my interviews] was empathy because everybody in their lives is really waiting for people to ask them questions, so that they can be truthful about who they are and how they became what they are.”

Marc Pachter , Cultural Historian

Marc Pachter founded  Living Self-Portraits at the Smithsonian and was its master interviewer.  In his TED talk below he shares the challenges of getting a good interview.

…if all you’re going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there’s no point in it. It’s pre-programmed. It’s infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we’re not going to share, …

Marc recounts several interviews and how he cut below the surface conversation to have his subjects reveal the truth of their lives.

Marc’s talk reminds  me of the advice I give to those I train for life story interviewing.  I tell my students they need to ask the “courageous  questions”. These are the questions that people have been waiting to be asked all of their lives. It requires courage on both sides. The interviewer must be confident enough to raise the questions. The interviewee must be unafraid to answer them.

Our work as personal historians, unlike  Marc Pachter’s,  seldom involves the famous. But the need to go beyond the pre-programmed responses is the same. How do we do that in a way that’s both incisive and empathetic? Here are some clues.

trust your intuition

Intuition is that ability of knowing without any rational explanation – a kind of sixth sense.  I’ve talked about this to some degree in a previous article, How to Listen with Your Eyes.

When we’re engaged in an interview, it’s not just the words we’re listening to but also the subtext. It’s the eyes that give us clues to what’s behind the words. Our subject may express happiness and contentment but the eyes are sad. We may hear kindness and openness  but the eyes are angry and narrowed.  If we’re doing our job well, we need to check out this dissonance with our interviewee. By listening with our eyes we unearth a richer more authentic story.

Trusting your intuition and blurting it out doesn’t mean that it’s always right. And that’s okay. People will set you straight if you’ve missed the mark.

As a rule, I generally preface my hunches with something like, “I have this feeling and I might be totally off base but I’d like to check it out…” [followed by the courageous question.]

With time and practice we can begin to trust our intuition and put it at the service of our clients.

Acknowledge the elephant

An elephant in the room can crush the intimacy from an interview. To help people express themselves and as Pachter says  “to feel what they … [want] to say and to be an agent of their self-revelation” we need to be fearless in acknowledging the elephant.

The caveat is that we must always be clear on our intent. We are the means through which people can speak unburdened. Our intent is not to embarrass, intimidate, or expose the interviewee.

For example, in my work I’ve found  that most of those at the end of life welcome an opportunity to talk about their fears and hopes. But I also know that  it’s not uncommon for friends and family of terminally-ill patients to avoid the subject of death altogether. While it’s perfectly understandable, such silence can leave the dying feeling even more isolated.

be curious

Curiosity is one of the key tools in an interviewer’s toolkit. It’s both playful and disarming.  The question begins  with “I wonder or I’m curious…” and invites an exploration between you and the interviewee.

Questions that are asked out of curiosity usually lead to responses that are authentic and deep.

For example,  after listening to your interviewee go on and on about their terrible childhood you might ask, “You’ve painted such a bleak picture of your childhood, I was wondering what were some of the good things that you can recall?”

Such a question stops the interviewee from the pre-programmed, infomercial described by Marc Pachter and gives the person an opportunity to dig deeper and uncover some bright spots.

conclusion

As personal historians we owe it to our clients to ask the courageous questions. One’s life story is more than a sterile recitation of dates, names, places, and events. Ultimately it’s about the complexity and richness of a soul’s journey. Courageous questions unlock this richness and give heart and substance to a personal history.

Photo by Pulpolux

Thanks to my APH colleague Pat McNees of Writers and Editors for alerting me to Marc Pachter’s TED talk.

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5 Essential Marketing Approaches You Need for a Successful Personal History Business.

Not all marketing approaches are equal when it comes to your personal history business. Traditional print advertising, for example, isn’t that effective. Few if any of us could sustain the major expense of an ad campaign. And we engage our clients at a very intimate level which requires that they know, like, and trust us before buying our service.

So if not all marketing approaches work, what does?

The collective wisdom of personal historians  who’ve built successful businesses suggests that these 5 approaches are essential.

word-of-mouth

Having  satisfied clients sing your praises to their network of family and friends  is pure gold. A colleague of mine gets most of her clients by word-of- mouth. If you’re starting out, it’ll take some time before you’ve built a critical enough mass to ensure a steady flow of clients.

This doesn’t mean you can’t begin the process with your very first client. If that person is really pleased with your work, don’t forget to ask for referrals. Check out my previous post Lousy at Getting Referrals? Here’s Some Help for more help.

If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful. ~ Jeff Bezos, founder Amazon.com

engage your community

Because our profession is a very personal business, potential clients want to be able to see, hear, and be inspired by us. So put yourself in the middle of groups  where you’re likely to meet face-to-face with potential clients. You can do this by volunteering, agreeing to sit on boards of community groups, and networking with business associations like BNI. I’ve written more about this in What Do Fishing and Personal History Clients Have in Common?

public speaking

I know this can strike fear in the hearts of the bravest souls but don’t pass up a great opportunity to promote personal histories. I’ve some help for you in  How to Get Control of Your Pre-Presentation Jitters.

Remember that your presentation isn’t about soliciting business but about educating people on the wonderful world of personal histories. Work up a variety of presentations that can fit a 15 or 30-minute time slot. You can read more about honing your presentation skills in my previous article Do You Want to Bolster Your Presentation Skills?

Next, contact groups in your community who might be interested in personal histories such as church groups, genealogical societies, book clubs, and service organizations.

build referral partners

There are a number of businesses which serve some of the same clients as personal historians. These include life coaches, wedding planners, financial planners, and eldercare transition specialists.

Over time you can  extend your reach by cultivating such referral partners. Read more about this in  You Can Do It! Get Referral Partners Today.

talk it up

Don’t underestimate the value of mentioning your work whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. Don’t be shy. Always carry a few business cards.

See your supermarket, bank, library, dentist office, and public transit as full of potential clients.  Chat with a stranger in a line up or with a receptionist or librarian. It works.  I’ve been asked for my card by a cashier at our local grocery store and by my dentist.

You just never know where your next client will come from.

Make it happen!

Don’t turn the chance to go anywhere. Join clubs, do anything you can to get out there and meet people. You are your product. Advertise it.
~ Max Markson, Australian marketing expert

Image iStockphoto

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Encore! 5 Solutions for Recording Telephone Interviews.

5 Solutions for Recording Telephone Interviews. We all know there are times when the only way to get an interview is by using the telephone. And let’s face it, telephones weren’t designed for hi-fi sound. If you’re interviewing for a book, audio quality is not as critical as for an audio or video production.  Having said that, there are some ways you can capture a telephone interview that provides adequate sound.  Remember to use  a land line telephone because … Read More


How Prepared Are You to Interview Terminally Ill Clients?

Life continually challenges us with the unexpected.  And only a fool would attempt to prepare for the unforeseen. It does help though to go into uncharted territory with our eyes open to potential risks.

Interviewing terminally ill people for their life stories is  satisfying, worthwhile, and often moving work. Though it does come with precautions. I’ve previously written about some of these in Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories. and 7 Essential Questions to Consider.

Now imagine yourself in the following situation.

You’re interviewing an 80-year-old woman, Rose, who lives with her daughter, Sandra. The daughter provides much of the caregiving. Rose suffers from a number of heart-related problems.

This is your third visit. The daughter tells you that she’ll be out doing errands while you spend the next hour interviewing her mother. Sandra assures you she’ll be back within the hour. It’s just you and Rose alone in the house.

About halfway through the interview Rose develops severe pains in her chest. She asks you to hurry and get her nitro pills in the kitchen. You find a tray with numerous medications but nothing labeled nitro.

Back in  the living room you  explain this to Rose. She suggests you call her daughter whose cell phone number is on a message board in the kitchen. But when you try to find the number, it’s nowhere to be found.

Rose is becoming increasingly agitated and calls out to bring the tray of medication to her in the living room. A number of questions race through your head.

  • What if she picks the wrong medication with calamitous results?
  • If something goes wrong, what should I do?
  • I’ll have to leave soon for an urgent appointment and Sandra hasn’t returned home. Should I leave anyway?

What would you do?

As a general rule, it is vitally important that as a personal historian working with a terminally ill person, you don’t begin to undertake caregiving tasks. You weren’t hired for this and indeed may put yourself and your client at risk if you step into such a role.

Having said that, you could find yourself in a situation similar to the one described with Rose. And with no one available to help, you may have to step in.

Some suggestions.

There are a range of possible responses, none totally satisfactory. But here are some suggestions:

1. If Rose is registered with a local Hospice, there may be a number you can call for just such a crisis. Someone there would have a list of her medications and be able to help you. If she isn’t registered with Hospice, then go to step 2.

2. Assuming Rose is clear mentally, bring the tray and ask her to point to the nitro pills.  Read out the name of the drug and ask if these are indeed the nitro pills. If she confirms they are, then allow her to select the bottle and  take the prescribed dose. Don’t select the bottle for her.

3. Stay by Rose’s side and monitor her progress. If she shows signs of recovery, you can breathe easy. If her condition worsens, call 911.

4. Assuming all is well, you still have an urgent appointment to keep.  Sandra, Rose’s daughter, hasn’t returned. And you feel uncomfortable leaving Rose on her own. Here’s what you might do:

  • Ask Rose if there is a neighbor who could come over and stay until Sandra returns. If there is, contact the neighbor and have that person come over.
  • If there’s no one who can come over, I’d opt to stay until Sandra returns. As urgent as your appointment may be, it is not worth risking someone’s safety. Call and re-schedule your appointment.

A final word.

One way to avoid the kind of predicament  I’ve described is to make certain that you’re never alone with a person whose health is severely compromised. Don’t allow a family caregiver to use you as a means to get out of the house. Pleasantly and firmly point out that your arrangement with your client doesn’t involve caregiving responsibilities.

I’d appreciate your responses to this scenario. Please post your thoughts in the comment box below. I promise to respond to each one.

Photo by jan van schijndel

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Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains.

                               ~Diane Ackerman

How much do we remember from our childhood? This is one of the questions examined recently by Canadian research scientists.

I’ve just finished reading Blanks for the Memories  which highlights aspects of the research originally published in the journal Child Development.

Neuroscientists believe that there are different kinds of memories, stored in many different neural circuits. “We can’t go to a particular spot in the brain to see where our third birthday party is stored,” says Dr. Hudson….

Scientists think the brain’s prefrontal cortex processes experiences, using sensory input from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, sorts them into categories, and tags the various memory fragments with specific associations (smells of home, friends from camp, bugs, a pet, for example).

Reading this made me realize how important the senses are to unlocking childhood memories. I must admit I could do a better job of incorporating sensory questions into my interviews. To get me pointed in the right direction, I’ve written a few sample “sensory” questions below.

I tested some out on my mother and she had great fun. It turns out that a taste she strongly associates with her childhood is jelly beans. Her mother would carefully count out five each for her and her two siblings. Today this may not sound like much but during The Depression jelly beans were a real treat!

How much do you incorporate sense-related questions into your interviews? Do you have a favorite “sensory” question?

Sight

  • What do you remember most about your mother’s appearance?
  • Paint a picture for me of where you lived – the weather, terrain.

Sound

  • What sounds do you associate with your childhood? What memories do they evoke?
  • What piece of music  do you remember from your childhood?

Taste

  • What was your favorite food when you were a child?
  • What tastes do you associate with your childhood?

Touch

  • What do you recall were things you loved to touch as a child,?
  • What do you remember liking to run your hands over or through?

Smell

  • What are some of the pleasant smells  you associate with your childhood? What memories do they bring back?
  • What smells from your childhood weren’t pleasant? What memories do they evoke?

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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