Category Archives: Tips

The 50 Best Questions to Ask Your Mother.

mother and daughter

How well do you really know your Mother? Chances are, not as well as you think.

With Mother’s Day not far off ( May 12), why not consider putting together a little recording or booklet about your Mother? The following questions are a good place to start.

[ Note: These questions assume a traditional family with Mom, Dad, and children. I'm aware that the wording of several questions might feel exclusionary for same sex partners with children. That's not my intent. The questions can be easily adapted to fit any family. ]

  1. Describe who you were as a little girl.
  2. What’s a favorite story from your childhood?
  3. What did you learn from your parents?
  4. How are you like and different from your Mother?
  5. How are you like and  different from your Father?
  6. Other than your parents, who was the most important person in your life when you were a child? And why?
  7. What’s a favorite memory from your elementary school days?
  8. As a young girl, what did you dream of being one day?
  9. How did your childhood shape the woman you are today?
  10. Tell me a story that involves you and your first boy friend.
  11. As an adolescent, what kind of mischief did you get into?
  12. Tell me about your first job.
  13. What did you work at the longest and what did you like about it?
  14. What didn’t you like about that job?
  15. Tell me how you and Dad met?
  16. What attracted you to him?
  17. What did you hope for in your married life?
  18. How did your married life meet your expectations?
  19. How are you and Dad alike and different?
  20. Tell me a story about a special time in your marriage.
  21. What have you learned about marriage that you’d like to pass on to others?
  22. How did having children change your life?
  23. What’s the best and worst thing about being a Mother?
  24. What words of wisdom do you have on parenting?
  25. What was an important road not taken?
  26. What have you been the proudest of in your life?
  27. Tell me a story that shows how you overcame an obstacle in your life.
  28. What would you say are your weaknesses?
  29. What’s a dream not yet fulfilled?
  30. What do you rely on to get you through the tough times?
  31. Describe a moment in your life that was filled with wonder.
  32. Who’s been the most important person in your adult life? And why?
  33. How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
  34. What’s your view of an afterlife?
  35. What has always come easy to you?
  36. What are your three wishes for me?
  37. What do you admire about me?
  38. If you had one piece of advice for me, what would it be?
  39. What qualities do you admire in your friends?
  40. If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? And why?
  41. What makes you laugh?
  42. What makes you sad?
  43. Whom do you admire most in the world? And why?
  44. What was the happiest time in your life?
  45. What’s unique about you?
  46. If you could change one thing in your life, what would that be?
  47. What’s the most amazing thing you’ve experienced in your life?
  48. Tell me something that people don’t know about you.
  49. If you had only one day to live, how would you live it?
  50. How would you like to be remembered?

If you found these questions helpful, you might also want to look at The 50 Best Life Story Questions.

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Are Your Clients Getting Too Little?

too little

Recently I was reading an article by marketing provocateur Seth Godin. In his usual challenging manner he hit the nail on the head.

” The hard part isn’t charging a lot. The hard part is delivering more (in the eye of the recipient) than he paid for…Too often, in the race to charge less, we deliver too little. And in the race to charge more, we forget what it is that people want. They want more. And better.”

This got me thinking.  A personal history book or video is a big ticket item for most clients. So what can we do to demonstrate that our clients will get get more than they expected?

Here are some ideas that come to mind:

Emphasize the lasting value of A life story.

When you have an initial conversation with a potential client, use  words such as investment rather than cost, legacy rather than personal history, gift instead of book or video.

I sometimes use a new car analogy. I point out that as soon as you drive a car off the lot, it begins to depreciate. On the other hand, a Life Story appreciates over time. You can’t say that about many things.

Use your professional qualifications.

It’s true that “Cousin George” can probably do the book for half the price. But does he have the experience and professional background to do a first-class job?

When people hire me, they know that not only are they getting an experienced professional personal historian but also a former award-winning documentary filmmaker. My work will be better than “Cousin George’s”.  At least I hope so. ;-)

Look for ways you can make your qualifications stand out.

Give your client more than just a book.

There are a number of ways to add  extras.

  • Include a set of audio CDs of your interviews.
  • Provide a poster size duplication of the book cover.
  • Give a subscription to a a family history magazine.
  • Reproduce a treasured archival photo from the book and have it framed.
  • Organize a launch party for friends and family after the book’s publication.

Find those little extras that add more value to your work.

Emphasize the superior quality of your books.

Have one of your beautiful personal history books to showcase your work. The quality will speak for itself. Point out the exceptional archival paper stock and inks that are used.  Acquaint clients with the  outstanding design elements.

You want to convey the message that these are “Legacy” books that will last for generations.

stress the  good feelings that come with a personal history book or video.

What clients may not appreciate are the positive feelings that arise with personal histories. It’s not just a book or video.

Parents and children talk about feeling closer to each other after engaging in a life story. Parents are touched by the thoughtfulness of their children undertaking such an endeavor. Still other recipients of a personal history find a new appreciation for their life accomplishments.

A personal history is  a connection to the soul.

What are some of the ways that you exceed your client’s expectations?

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How to Ask Questions that Will Unlock Life Stories.


“A storyteller who provided us with…a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening. Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines…The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.” — Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)


Last week I wrote How to Get the Stories in a Life Story Interview.  I spoke about the need to draw on good storytelling techniques (i.e.,  surprising twists and turns, interesting characters, a sense of progression, etc.) when interviewing a client for a life story.

Today I want to focus on the kind of questions that will help unlock the stories.

What you want to think about as you’re interviewing a client is how do my questions help reveal the stories of this person’s life.

Avoid at all costs questions that lead to mind-numbing details that neither illustrate nor contribute to the story being told.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the minutiae of a life. But it must in some way enhance our appreciation of the overall story. For example, describing in some detail what an individual wore to school could nicely illustrate the story of how poor this person was compared to fellow classmates.

On the other hand, details about where an interviewee bought his shoes, what kind of shoes they were, their color, how well they fit, and how much his friends admired them will cause our eyes to glaze over – unless there’s a payoff.

To elicit stories  use prompts such as Describe, Illustrate, Paint, and Tell.

To illustrate, I’ve grouped together six pairs of life story queries. The first in each pair is  weaker than the second and on its own not likely to lead to much of a story. The second question is stronger and provides more opportunity for story telling.

Weak  “Where did you live?”
Strong  “Paint a picture for me of the place where you grew up.”

Weak “What did you do on summer holidays?”
Strong “What was one of your most memorable summer holidays?”

Weak “What is your grandchild’s name?”
Strong “Tell me a favorite story of you and your grandchild.”

Weak “What was a peak moment in your life?”
Strong “Describe a time when you felt on top of the world.”

Weak  “What regrets do you have in your life?”
Strong “Describe an incident in your past that you still regret.”

Weak “What was the hardest part of being a parent?”
Strong “Tell me a story that illustrates the challenges of being a parent.”

As personal historians we have an opportunity to turn the richness of a person’s life into an engaging and treasured story.

Remember the words of Ken Kesey.

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”

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How to Get the Stories in a Life Story Interview.

iStock_in the beginningWhat makes a great story? If you think of the characteristics of your favorite novels, you’ll probably come up with a list like mine:

o engaging characters

o interesting settings

o intriguing and coherent plot

o surprising twists and turns

o conflict and resolution

These same story elements also apply to non-fiction works like life stories or memoirs. One of the pitfalls that inexperienced personal historians  make is to forget this. Great stories engage the reader or listener.

A narrative that reads, “This happened and then that happened. And then this happened followed by that happening.” is not engaging. It’s simply a recitation of events, places, and details.  It’s boring.

Here’s how you can ensure that you get great stories.

As you interview a client, listen carefully and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the story have a strong sense of place?
  • Are the characters well drawn?
  • Is the story intriguing?
  • Am I drawn in?
  • Am I delighted?
  • Am I surprised?
  • Is there a sense of moving forward – a journey?
  • Is the storyteller emotionally connected to the story?
  • Is this a crucial story in the person’s life? Is it a turning point?
  • Does the story seem to have a purpose? That is, is it worth telling?

If your answer is “No” to any one of these, gently redirect the interview. Ask questions that will turn the “No’s” into “Yes’s”.

You’ll be surprised at how much more engaging your client’s  stories will be.


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Photo by iStockphoto

6 Ways to Rekindle the Passion in Your Freelance Work.


The other day I was having coffee with a colleague and she asked me how I kept my “saw sharp”.  Good question.  No matter how much we love our work, the day-to-day demands can eventually wear us down and make us dull.

I’ve been self-employed for over three decades and know what it’s like to lose my spark. Here are some ways  I’ve found to get it back.  Maybe they’ll work for you.

 1. Connection

Working solo can be an isolating experience. Being able to meet with colleagues is a great tonic.

I get energized meeting locally with fellow personal historians. As well, being connected online through my membership in the Association of Personal Historians is a wonderful source of support and information.

Make sure you’ve got a support group that can give you an added boost when your spirits are low.

2. Variety

I admit that I get bored doing the same thing over and over again.  Knowing this means  I look for ways to build variety into my work.

I started this blog in part because I wanted to try something new. I’ve also expanded my repertoire beyond  video productions to include print and audio projects.

Look for ways that you can add some new pieces to the work you do.

3. Continuous learning

I’m a perpetual student. I love to learn new things. Besides books, there are online workshops and courses that keep me up-to-date and fresh.

Another super way to keep learning is going to a professional conference. I’ve attended two Association of Personal Associations conferences.  These are jam-packed with workshops and talks. Each time I go, I come away feeling revitalized.

Plan to attend one professional conference this year. You won’t regret it.

4. Time out

No matter how much you love your work, if you never take a break from it, you run the real risk of losing your spark.

For this reason I’ve built into my days and weeks “play time”.  Whether it’s meditating, going for a walk, visiting with friends, or just goofing off, I get away from my work.

What kind of play time have you built into your work week?

5. Inspiration

I find that being around positive, inspiring people and reading or listening to inspiring stories does a lot to rekindle my enthusiasm.

I know I’m not alone. Over 15 million YouTube viewers have watched  Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.

Take the time to find inspiring stories that will recharge your batteries.

6. Acknowledgement

When I’m feeling flat and uninspired, I sometimes go to my “Thank You” folder. Here I keep all of the notes and letters sent to me by satisfied and grateful clients.

Reading through these brings a smile to my face and a reminder of why I love my work.

Make sure to put all your support letters in a file where you can find them. And periodically take them out and read them.

What are some of the ways you bring  zest back into your work?

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Photo Credit: mdezemery via Compfight cc

Goodbye Resolutions and Goals. Hello Intentions!


I’ve given up on resolutions and goals. I’ve been inspired in part by Leo Babauta’s writing in Zen Habits.  He’s taken up living a goal free life and he’s prospering.

Goals Don’t Work

Goal setting  has never worked for me. And apparently it doesn’t work that well for others. A recent study shows that focusing on our goals has a negative downside. Such a focus diminishes our enjoyment of the activities required to achieve our goal. As a result we often give up.

Goals are about a future finish line that you’re meant to reach. It’s what most productivity models are based on.  The problem, if you’re like me, is that  you don’t always get to the finish line. And when that happens, you can feel like a failure.

If you do persevere and reach your goal, you can sometimes feel pride of accomplishment but then end up asking  yourself, like Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” And the answer inevitably is, “Well, no! There are more goals to work on!” It’s a never-ending pursuit of some idealized version of yourself. This isn’t anyway to live or work.

Let’s face it. Life is messy and we’re far from perfect. Goal setting fails to take these realities into account.  If  goals really worked, all the self-help gurus would have long since been out of business.

A Better Way:  Intentions + Dedication

I know that we can be accomplished much without a slavish devotion to goals and plans. The way ahead lies in being clear about our intentions and being dedicated to seeing them through.

Intentions are about knowing and honoring our values, focusing on the present,  enjoying the process, and letting go of the struggle toward some distant finish line.  Intentions are about making room in our life for what is truly important.

Intentions  are about learning new, more skillful ways of being and doing.  But old habits die hard having been strengthened by years of constant use. To create healthier habits requires a willingness to dedicate time to practice them. Without this dedication little will change.

My Intentions for 2013

It’s useful to have a few select intentions to focus on rather than a long shopping list. Here are my 3 intentions for 2013.

  • Kindness. It’s my intention to be kind to myself and to others. This means not being quick to beat myself up over some perceived failure. As well, it’s my intention to be thoughtful and caring to both friends and strangers .
  • Acceptance. This is a repeat from last year and something I’m still  working on. It’s my intention to accept that things often happen regardless of what I do or don’t do.  I will accept the hard times along with the good, the sad with the joyful, and abundance with scarcity. And I will try to do all this with equanimity.
  • Spaciousness. It’s my intention to allow ample time to devote to my spiritual practice, creative pursuits, and physical well-being.  And to make my home free of clutter.

There is a better way to move forward in 2013 than harnessing yourself to a set of goals and plans. I know it sounds counter intuitive but throw away your goals. Trust that your intentions and your willingness to live them each and every day will get you where you want to go.

What are your intentions for 2013?

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Your Favorite Posts of 2012.

check mark

Here are the most popular posts of the past year. If you missed some of these, now’s your chance to find out what attracted others to these articles.

Do you have a favorite article that isn’t on the list? Share it with us here.

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Are You Ready for a Moment of Calmness?

This piece has become an annual tradition. Many of you appreciate the idea of a place where you can focus for a moment on calmness. Enjoy!


It’s time to stop  the rushing and working and worrying. You can always pick that up later. For now, as we come to the end of another year,  let’s all take a deep breath and calm ourselves.  As my holiday present,  I’ve put together a little virtual retreat for you. You’ll find some wonderful calming images, music, books, and quotations. Start anywhere you like.  There’s the three minute Whispering Sea guitar video.  You can  feast your eyes on all the sumptuous calming images from Google. There are three books you might want to check out and some insightful quotations on calmness, my favorite being:

The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.
~James Allen

Continue reading

8 Tips to Prepare Your Business for the New Year.


Your small business is like your car. It needs regular servicing to keep it running smoothly.

With the year rapidly drawing to a close, now’s the time to give your business a tune -up.

Here are 8 tips that’ll have your company running like a Rolls Royce in 2013.

1. Evaluate

Take a hard look at what’s  not working in your business and drop it.  It might be a marketing approach that has failed to generate leads. Or it might be fees that are too low to sustain your business.

Similarly, look at what’s working. How can you do more or improve on your success?  Maybe your  speaking engagements have been a great way of getting new clients. Consider offering more.

2. Declutter

Finding it hard to find the surface of your desk? Are there file folders and books stacked on the floor? Actually, it’s beginning to sound a lot like my office. ;-)

You’ll feel more organized and on top of things once you get rid of extraneous stuff. You don’t have to be a fanatic about it. A little order and spaciousness can go a long way.  Set aside a few minutes  a day and you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish.

Just to let you know I’ve started my own decluttering. I do have a desk!

3. Bookkeeping

If you keep your receipts in a shoe box, it’s time to consider a bookkeeper or an accounting software program.

It’s critical that you have a clear picture of income, expenses, and profit. Without an ongoing snapshot of your financials you’ll never be able to accurately assess your company’s health.

4. Learn

Being a successful small business owner requires constantly upgrading  and learning new skills. Look for webinars, tutorials, expert speakers, and courses that will make a difference to your performance  in 2013.

For some great online training sites of interest to personal historians click here.

5. Connect

There’s a wealth of information and support to be found in professional  and small business associations.  For example, if you’re a personal historian and haven’t yet joined the Association of Personal Historians, make sure to join today.

6. Plan

Without a road map you’ll never know where you’re going.   Look ahead at the coming year and write down your goals. Keep them realistic. Grandiose plans are sure to fail and will leave you discouraged.

Check out Really Simple Goal Setting   for some excellent help.

7. Website

If you don’t have a website or blog, get one. If you have one, it’s time to take a critical look at it. How fresh is the content? How easy is it to navigate around the site? What’s missing? What can be discarded? How professional does it look?

You can find more on building a successful blog here.

8. Self-care

A healthy business needs a healthy owner. It’s easy to neglect your own care  when working hard to make a success of your business.

Make certain to schedule time for you in your day planner.  Whether it’s going to the gym or for a walk, meditating or reading a book, you need to give yourself permission to relax and recharge.

For more articles on taking care of yourself check these out:

What are the things you do to get yourself and your business ready for a new year?

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How Can a Labyrinth Lead You to Success?

If you don’t know where you’re going…you might not get there. ~ Yogi Berra

Recently I walked a labyrinth. I don’t do this regularly. But I was attending a silent weekend  Buddhist retreat and outside the retreat center was a large labyrinth.

You can find business lessons almost anywhere.

I became aware that walking the labyrinth was akin to establishing and running a successful personal history business. There is a beginning with all the anticipation of the journey ahead. And there’s an end goal of a flourishing business.  And the distance between these two points  is not a straight line but a series of intricate interconnecting paths.

What does a labyrinth  have to teach us about running a successful personal history business?

Have a plan

You need to know where you’re going and how to get there.

In a labyrinth, just as you’re about to reach your destination,  the path veers off and you find yourself moving away.  But you trust if you keep following it, you’ll eventually reach your goal. And you do.

Similarly,  in your personal history business you need to have a clearly marked path. It starts with having in place a workable business plan that will give you confidence to get through through the inevitable twists and turns your business will take.

Don’t give up

Like the twisting path of the  labyrinth, you’ll  encounter setbacks in your business. It’s easy to get discouraged. But if you have a solid business plan and are committed to reaching your goal, then you’ll be encouraged to continue, knowing that success can be yours.

Take time for reflection

Walking a labyrinth is in part an exercise in reflection. The mind is focused on the path, allowing some of the busyness of your life to settle. You can see more clearly.

Running your personal history business can  seem overwhelming at times. There’s so much to do and so little time to do it. But  successful business owners take time to examine where their company has been, where it’s going, and what changes need to be made to keep on track.

Make time to reflect on the health of your business.


Having a sound and wise path to follow in life and in business is the trick to  happiness. There is no one path. You’ll need to determine what’s right for you. Once you’ve chosen your path,  set out with joy, courage, and humbleness.

And remember what Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going…you might not get there.

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Photo by Jim Champion