Tag Archives: details

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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Photo Credit: DaveBleasdale via Compfight cc

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?”


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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