Category Archives: Personal historian

Encore! 10 Commandments for the Professional Personal Historian.

10 Commandments for the Professional Personal Historian. I’m not Moses or even a prophet for that matter. But I’ve been around for a while! As a freelancer for thirty years,  I’ve learned some key lessons that can be summed up in these ten commandments that I try my best to follow. Not always successfully!  For those of you starting out, these might provide a useful checklist. For the experienced among us, perhaps the commandments will be a  useful reminder of what we need to keep doing. What are your … Read More


Can I Make a Living as a Personal Historian?

I get asked this question with increasing regularity. And my response is – it depends. Like most things in life, there isn’t a simple answer. Here are a few things to ponder.

What do you consider a living wage?

If you need to earn a 6 figure salary in order to maintain your lifestyle, you’re unlikely to achieve that as a personal historian .  I’d suggest you take up cosmetic surgery. ;-)

But maybe you’re thinking, “I’m looking at a more modest income, maybe  around $50,000 a year.”

Okay. Let’s do the math.  On average it takes about three months to complete a personal history book.  You might be able to produce 4  books a year. That means you’re going to have to charge your clients $12,500 per book to make $50,000 a year. And remember, you’ll have to deduct your business expenses from that figure.

If you can find clients who are willing to pay you that amount, great. But I’ll be frank. While $12,500 is a reasonable price to pay for a personal history, you’ll find many potential clients will be shocked by the price.

People love the concept of personal histories, but they haven’t a clue about the costs of producing one.

How soon do you need to earn some money?

If you’re new to self-employment, you’re in for a surprise. It’ll take you at least a couple of years of hard work to make your business profitable.

Without another source of income or sufficient savings to tide you over, it’s almost impossible to reach a point where you’re making a living from personal histories.

Do you have the right qualities to be a personal historian?

If you don’t have the qualities that are required of a personal historian, you’re going to find earning a living from this work a challenge.  Here’s a check-list of some of those qualities. How do you think you fare?

  • excellent interviewing skills
  • non-judgmental
  • enjoy working alone
  • able to market and promote oneself
  • patient
  • empathetic listener
  • self-motivated
  • comfortable at public speaking
  • proficient writing and editing skills
  • love variety
  • a positive attitude
  • enjoy working with people

How hard are you prepared to work?

Being a personal historian can be a very enjoyable hobby. But if you’re intending this to be a business, then be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. For the first few years this can means 10 to 12 hour days, 7 day weeks, with few if any holidays. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Putting in this kind of effort works if you’re passionate  about what you’re doing. But if you don’t have that “fire in your belly”,  then do yourself a favor and don’t even start.

Conclusion

You can make a living being a personal historian provided you’ve got the right personality, love life stories and people, are prepared to work hard, and aren’t looking to earn top dollars.

Photo by Renee

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3 Keys to Creating Trust with Potential Clients.

Here’s a shocker! I was reading that a CBS News/New York Times Poll revealed only 30% of respondents believed people in general are trustworthy. Not surprising perhaps but disillusioning.

But all’s not lost. When a  similar group was asked,“What percent of people that you know are trustworthy?”  the response jumped to 70%.  Clearly knowing someone makes a big difference. The more people get to know us, the higher the level of trust. It makes sense.

A key factor in whether potential clients will hire us as personal historians is trust. But how to build trust in an introductory meeting?

I turned to The Oxford Dictionary for help. It defines trust as: a  firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. If we take each of these components of trust, they provide clues to building rapport with a new client.

Reliability

Reliability begins with the simplest of acts – showing up on time for your meeting. Nothing kills  reliability more than changing an already fixed appointment date or showing up late or early.

It also helps if you’ve been in business for a few years, have a track record,  and have a set of glowing testimonials.

Avoid being needy. It reeks of desperation and raises questions about the health of your business. No one wants to sign a contract with someone who’s about to go under.

Truth

Refrain from being somebody you’re not. People can smell phoniness.  You don’t have to adopt a “marketing”  persona or be over solicitous.  Go into your meeting with a new client confident, friendly, and mindful. That’s it, nothing more.

Forgo trying to be all things to all people. For example, if your specialty is producing video biographies, don’t “fudge” things by selling yourself as a book specialist in hopes of  getting the job. You won’t sound convincing. It’s better to recommend a colleague whose expertise is print. You’ll win points for being honest. While you might lose the contract, your good name will spread in the community. And that matters.

We all expect straight answers. Your clients are no different. Questions about your fees, expertise, years of experience, and the time to complete a personal history need to be answered  without obfuscation.

Ability

If you’re new to personal histories, you may have little to show prospective clients. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t highlight your previous experience to establish your proficiency.  For example, print and video editing, interviewing, counseling, radio and film producing all require skills that come to play in producing a print or video life story.

Regardless of the number of years  experience, you want to display your interviewing expertise from the moment you meet your prospective client. If you’re friendly, curious, attentive, and  non-judgmental, then you’ll have modeled  good interviewing skills. This is subtle “selling” but it works in establishing trust and rapport.

Photo by iStockphoto

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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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Encore! 10 Indispensable Self-Editing Books.

10 Essential Self-Editing Books. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned professional, these ten reference books are a must for your library. My thanks to the  following  Association of Personal Historians colleagues who suggested many of these books: Pat McNees, Mim Eisenberg, Stephen Evans, and Philip Sherwood  … Read More


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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4 Tips to Keep Your Blog Fresh, Consistent, and Enduring.

Recently one of my readers  asked, “How do you keep a blog going and keep it fresh, regular, and on time? It’s a skill I can’t seem to master yet!”

I haven’t written on the subject of blog motivation and commitment before and now seems a good time. After three years of blogging and posting three articles a week,  I’ve learned what keeps me going. Here’s what I know:

Find your passion.

Writing regularly requires passion. If you don’t have enthusiasm and interest for your material,  writing will be laborious and you’ll resent putting in the time.

I’m naturally curious and I enjoy researching and writing.  This combined with my love of life stories makes producing for my blog a delight – well most of the time. ;-)

Finding your passion is easier said than done. Here’s a clue. What is it that you love and can’t wait to do? What do you find yourself doing when other more pragmatic things require your attention? For more on finding your passion click here.

Know your audience.

It’s difficult to come up with material if you don’t have an audience in mind.

When I started my blog, my focus was split between the hobbyist doing life stories and the professional personal historian. It didn’t work. After several months I knew that the people I wanted to write for were like me – professional personal historians working at their craft full-time.

So ask yourself, “Who are the people I really want to talk to?”

Think Outside The Box.

Coming up with fresh original material week after week can be challenging. One method of sparking article content  is combining apparently non-related subjects. For example, I used my cat to come up with 6 Lessons My Cat Taught Me About Time Management. Betty White became the inspiration for  Want to Know What Betty White Can Teach You About Your Personal History Business?. And my garden provided fodder for What Gardening Can Teach You About Growing Your Business.

Other sources I go to regularly for inspiration are newspaper and magazine articles, movies, other blogs, forums, Facebook, and Twitter.  After a while your radar is alert for potential blog articles  in the most unlikely places. Coming out of my neighborhood bank one day, I saw a sign that led to this post, Are Your Clients Extremely Satisfied With Your Service?

be self-disciplined.

Remember what Woody Allen said, ” Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

If you’re going to be consistent with your blog posts, you need to be disciplined. It doesn’t matter whether you write one post a week or five. What matters to your readers is that they can count on you being there. Consistency demonstrates that you take your blog seriously.

Schedule blog time in your work week calendar making certain to book an uninterrupted hour or two. Try to select periods in the day when you naturally have more energy.

Avoid distractions. Close your Internet browser, let your answering service pick up your calls, and close the door to your office. Don’t get up from your desk until you’ve spent at least 30 minutes researching or writing.

conclusion

If you have something to say and you want to build a readership for your blog, you’ve got to work at it. Don’t expect immediate results. It’ll take a couple of years before you start to see the fruits of your labor.

When I started out three years ago, I barely averaged 6oo viewers a month.  Today I reach over 4,000 viewers a month. True, it’s a small number when compared to such mega star blogs as Zen Habits and copyblogger. Then again, the personal historian niche is small and so I’m pleased with my progress so far.

For other blogging articles that I’ve written you might want to check out Should I Have a Business Blog? and What Everybody Ought to Know About a Successful Blog.

Photo by Mike Licht

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Encore! Why Are You a Personal Historian?

Why Are You a Personal Historian? I came across this Annie Dillard quote the other day: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It got me thinking. There are times when the humdrum of keeping a personal history business afloat and tending to clients’ concerns can leave me drained and questioning if this is how I want to spend my days. Why am I a personal historian?  I tell myself that I’m helping families record and preserve their stories as a legacy for … Read More

Warning: Avoiding the Digital Universe Will Hurt Your Business.

Let me begin by saying there are legitimate reasons to be wary of the ever expanding digital universe – a glut of junk information, loss of privacy, time wasting, and addiction. But there are also irrational fears at work based in part on our inherent resistance to  change.

Change happens. And a good thing too. Lucky for us there was the invention of the printing press. Monks no longer toil on illuminated texts for a select few.  Manual typewriters have a certain aesthetic appeal but quite frankly I was happy to throw out the rolls of correction tape.

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.  ~ Popular Mechanics, 1949

There are those for whom the world was a much better place when we read “real” books, wrote in longhand, and used manual typewriters. There’s a wistful longing for a slower paced, more genteel life.  And while I sympathize, I can’t help but feel that these people are missing a richness of experience that’s just a click away.

Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine. ~ 1936, Richard Lambert, broadcaster

If you’re not running a small business, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re digitally savvy. But if you want to create a successful personal history business,  you’ve got to stick more than your big toe into the digital stream. This doesn’t mean you have to be sucked under and drown.  But it does mean that you need to be familiar with what’s out there to be able to pick and choose the digital tools that’ll help your business.  Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the wealth of resources that are available will hurt your business.

Here are a few digital resources worth considering. What would you add to this list?

  • E-books:  add a whole innovative and interactive realm to life stories with text, videos, photos, maps, documents, and more. Read more here and here.
  • Webinars:  increase marketing reach using such services as GoToWebinar.
  • Blogging: build conversations and credibility with clients using a free service such as WordPress or Blogger.
  • VoIP: extend interviewing reach world wide with a service such as Skype .
  • Podcasting: reach a wider audience with information and support using such services as BlogTalkRadio.
  • Booklets: turn a PDF file into a handy information booklet using BookletCreator.
  • POD: print a sample copy of a book using a print-on-demand service such as Blurb.
  • QR Codes: print these codes on your business cards and send clients to a URL site where they can access more information about your services, get discount coupons, access video, and more. You can create a QR Code here.
  • Project management: find a list of 10 free project Management applications here.

Photo by wecand

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