Tag Archives: Life stories

News Flash! Being Relaxed Makes People Spend More Freely.

The  recent issue of  the Journal of Marketing Research  examined the correlation between relaxation and consumer spending. It turns out that all things being equal consumers are more willing to pay higher prices if they feel relaxed.

It’s no surprise then that we find luxury products typically displayed in high-end boutiques that ooze comfort and elegance. Commenting on the research Wired Magazine wrote:

Why does relaxation turn us into spendthrifts? When we feel safe, we are better able to fully focus on the potential rewards at stake. Instead of worrying about price, we can contemplate the advantages of having a sophisticated camera, or the thrill of falling through the air. As the psychologists demonstrated in subsequent experiments, those subjects who were more relaxed thought less about particulars – the specific cost of the gadget or the dangers of the risky behavior – and more about the abstract pleasures they were trying to purchase.

What has all this to do with personal historians?

We are in the business of providing a high-end product. Asking individuals to part with $10,000 or more for a personal history requires more from us than offering up a good resume, a nice smile, and an attractive brochure.

If as the research suggests a relaxed personal history client is more likely to say yes to  a life story, shouldn’t we be looking at ways we can enhance the “relaxation” factor?

Here are some ideas worth considering:


Take a look at  Dolce&Gabbana for some clues on how a high-end retailer provides a very subdued and relaxed online presence. Now examine your website. Is it friendly, inviting, and easy to navigate? Are the colors and photographs calming. Does it offer free resources? Does it have space to breathe? Does the copy tell a heart-warming story? In other words, does it feel relaxed!  If you’ve said yes to all these, then you’ve made a good start. If not, then you’ve got some work to do.


As with your website design similar rules apply to your brochure – easy on the eye, inviting, and friendly. Also check out the feel of your brochure.  Is it silky smooth and durable like an expensive art card? Avoid stock that’s flimsy and feels cheap.


If possible, choose to meet clients in a calm, relaxing setting. A good choice is often the client’s home. People are usually at ease in their own place unless it’s crawling with rambunctious kids and pets. ;-)

If you can’t meet in a client’s home, consider a location that’s subdued and attractive such as a boutique bakery/café, a quite corner of an elegant hotel lobby, or perhaps even your own home.


If you’re hungry for a contract, you’re going to be telegraphing this regardless of your outward expression. A look of desperation in your eyes does nothing to put potential clients at ease.

A more relaxing approach is to assume nothing and make the meeting an opportunity to learn more about your client’s wishes. Go with the idea of helping this person realize their personal history project even if it doesn’t in the long run involve working with you.


We know from experience that trusting someone puts us in a more relaxed frame of mind. I’ve previously written about this in 3 Keys to Creating Trust with Potential Clients.


As personal historians we need to judiciously apply all the marketing techniques at our disposal in order to reach potential clients and gain their confidence.

The “relaxation” factor isn’t a magic bullet. But combined with other marketing approaches it can give you an added advantage.

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Photo by Sarah Ackerman

Monday’s Link Roundup.

This Monday’s Link roundup has the perfect solution to kick-start your week – Celebrity Autobigraphy. It’s  drop dead funny and a stark reminder that trivia in the guise of memoir is just bad writing. On a more serious note, I highly recommend the interview with Dudley Clendinen in ..building stories from life and choosing grace in death.”

  • Where Stories Are Remembered. “Mr. Kamara has taught for two decades at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But as with his forebears, the identity that means the most to him is that of a storyteller. “Not the kind of storyteller you listen to when you’re sitting around a fire, and maybe it’s raining, and you’re scared to go home,” he said. His stories have to do with genealogy, cosmology and similarly great subjects, and are told while others dance and perform music, making them true multimedia performances.” [Thanks to APH member Marcy Davis for alerting me to this item.]
  • Sixth National Women’s Memoir Conference. [April 13-15, 2012 Wyndham Hotel, Austin, Texas] “Stories from the Heart VI will bring women from around the country to celebrate our stories and our lives. Through writing, reading, listening, and sharing, we will discover how personal narrative is a healing art, how we can gather our memories, how we can tell our stories. “
  • Dudley Clendinen on building stories from life and choosing grace in death. “Our latest Editors’ Roundtable examines Dudley Clendinen’s “The Good Short Life,” a career journalist’s startling response to being diagnosed with ALS…Clendinen has written for GQ, the St. Petersburg Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, among many other publications. Clendinen was kind enough to take the time – a commodity that has become precious to him – to talk with us about his essay. In these excerpts from our conversation, he addresses using his life as material, coming out on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and the upside of getting “paid to die.”
  • Everybody Has a Story. “The story starts with a dart and a map. Over a shoulder, the dart is thrown, and where it stops no one knows. Once the dart lands on a town, Steve Hartman goes there and calls someone up on the phone and interviews them. Admittedly, it’s a unique way of getting a story, but his “Everybody Has a Story” segments on CBS’s The Early Show are being emulated on local newscasts and in newspapers across the country. Actually, Hartman got the idea for the segment from newspaper reporter David Johnson of Idaho’s Lewiston Morning Tribune.”
  • The Rise of “Awesome”. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was awesome.  If this sounds like an irreverent approach to the famous first lines of the gospel of John, I can assure you it’s not. “The word was God,” according to the original. But repeatedly in the Bible, God is “awesome”… How did this once-awe-inspiring word become a nearly meaningless bit of verbiage referring to anything even mildly good?”
  • Celebrity Autobiography. “How does Vanna flip her panels?  What does Stallone have in his freezer?  Why did Burt and Loni topple from the upper tier of their wedding cake?  What makes the Jonas Brothers get along?  Find all this out and more in the new hit comedy “Celebrity Autobiography” where super star memoirs are acted out live on stage.  Audiences walk away from the show asking, “ Did they actually write that?”  Yes, we couldn’t make this stuff up!”
  • How to Manage the Risks of Having Your Own Business. “Starting a business is risky. Horribly, terrifyingly risky. Nearly all new businesses fail — that’s the official statistic, right? Some say 4 out of 5, some say as many as 95%. Successful entrepreneurs have a different kind of DNA from the rest of us. Ice water runs through their veins. They thrive on risk. The more insane the odds, the better they like it. For those of us who have families, or who just don’t feel like living on ramen for the next four years, we’re probably better off keeping the day job. Do you believe any of those? Because I call B.S. on all of them.”

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My Dears, Don’t Miss These 20 Fabulous Articles on Interviewing!

If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.
~ W. Edwards Deming,  American author and lecturer.

A good personal history interview is like a symphony – complex, engaging, and harmonious. Over the past three years I’ve written extensively about the art of the interview and assembled these articles here in one convenient list. Enjoy!

  1. Are You Asking the Courageous Questions?
  2. How Prepared Are You to Interview Terminally Ill Clients? 
  3. Come to Your Senses and Unlock Childhood Memories.
  4. What Do You Do When Facing a Reluctant Family Story Teller?
  5. How to Use “Acknowledgment” to Build a Better Interview. 
  6. How to Listen with Your Eyes.
  7. The #1 Secret to a Successful Life Story Interview.
  8. Are You Creating a Supportive Milieu for Your Personal History Interviews?
  9. Caution: End-of-Life Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories.
  10. How to Boost Your Interviewing Skills.
  11. Avoid These Three Interviewing Pitfalls.
  12. What I’ve Learned About Getting “Truthful” Interviews.
  13. 4 Action Steps to a Good Life Story Interview.
  14. How to Listen With Your Third Ear.
  15. Want To Do A Better Job of Listening?
  16. How to Interview A “Challenging” Subject.
  17. How to be An Engaged Listener.
  18. How to Interview Someone with Dementia.
  19. Do You Make These Interviewing Mistakes?
  20. Nine Secrets of A Good Interview.

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Photo by Erica La Spada

Encore! How to End Your Book or Video Life Story.

The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.
~ James A. Baldwin

Imagine that you’re coming to the last chapter of a book or the final hour of a video life story you’re doing.  It may be your own or it could be a story you’ve been hired to record. Every detail has been covered from childhood to the present. How can you wrap up this life story in a way that feels satisfying? As a colleague said, “The book is ending; the life is not.”… More

Personal Historians, Are You LGBT Language Sensitive?

The following article is reprinted with the kind permission of Personal Historian, Sally Goldin. She is a member of the Association of Personal Historians and can be contacted here. 

As a lesbian mother and personal historian, I’ve been thinking about the issue of LGBT invisibility in regards to preserving life stories.

Even though LGBT issues have become more visible and acceptable in this society, there are still situations where you can be fired, harassed, or physically attacked for being an LGBT person. I was clearly reminded of this because of the harassment and discrimination a teacher friend of mine experienced in the Houston Independent School District. In this YouTube presentation to the Board of the H. I. S. D. he describes the harassment he encountered.  (The picture clears up at 30seconds). This is a person who had previously been named Teacher of the Year twice in 5 years.

I wonder how many of us are aware of the language we use, both on an everyday basis, and in presentations about personal history? You cannot tell if someone is lesbian or gay by looking at them. (Well, maybe sometimes you can, but not always . . .) Therefore, we have to be conscious of the words we use in conversation, and make an effort to be inclusive in our communications.

For example, a simple question such as, “Are you married?” might be difficult for a lesbian or gay man to answer, depending on where they live.  I live in San Francisco. I would not be allowed to marry a romantic partner.

During an interview with a woman, without thinking, you might ask, “Do you remember your first date? What was he like?” It would be more appropriate to say, “Do you remember your first date? What was the person like?

If you are getting to know someone, ask about a “sweetheart” or “special someone” instead of a boyfriend (for a female) and girlfriend (for a male).

Do you offer a family tree as part of your services? If so, how do you incorporate into that tree a child who has 2 moms or 2 dads? My son is now 25 years old and his family tree would include his 2 moms, his donor father, a half sister and a half brother with the same “donor dad”, 3 other unknown half-siblings, my ex-partner’s wife who has known him since he was 10 years old, and 3 sets of grandparents (from his 2 moms and his
father). Whew!

When talking to a group about personal history, remember to use the term “family” or “parents” as opposed to “Mom and Dad”.

Don’t assume that if a family is Hispanic or African American (or some other non-white ethnicity), they would not have lesbian or gay family members.

I am grateful and proud to be a member of the Association of Personal Historians, an organization that strives to be inclusive and diverse, and where I do not have to hide all of who I am from the membership.

Photo by  Charlie Nguyen

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Encore! Ten Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Your Camcorder.

Ten Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Your Camcorder. For those of you who are new to doing video interviews for a life story, here are some common mistakes to avoid. Failure to … Read More

Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup I particularly enjoyed Toss Productivity Out.  It questions our usual notion of what it means to be productive.  And for the grammar challenged like myself, you’ll find More one-or-two-word confusables a handy reference.

  • The iPhone: a Scanner in Your Pocket. “The next time you read a document that contains information about your ancestors, wouldn’t it be nice to immediately scan an image of it and email the image to yourself? Even better, how about uploading the image immediately to Dropbox or to MobileMe iDisk?  If you own an iPhone, you can do that right now by installing a bit of low-cost software.”
  • How to survive the age of distraction. “In the 20th century, all the nightmare-novels of the future imagined that books would be burnt. In the 21st century, our dystopias imagine a world where books are forgotten. To pluck just one, Gary Steynghart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story describes a world where everybody is obsessed with their electronic Apparat – an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn – and have somehow come to believe that the few remaining unread paper books let off a rank smell. The book on the book, it suggests, is closing.”
  • Confessions of a Typomaniac. “Of all the truly calamitous afflictions of the modern world, typomania is one of the most alarming and least understood. It was first diagnosed by the German designer Erik Spiekermann as a condition peculiar to the font-obsessed, and it has one common symptom: an inability to walk past a sign (or pick up a book or a menu) without needing to identify the typeface. Sometimes font freaks find this task easy, and they move on; and sometimes their entire day is wrecked until they nail it.”
  • Toss Productivity Out. “Toss productivity advice out the window. Most of it is well-meaning, but the advice is wrong for a simple reason: it’s meant to squeeze the most productivity out of every day, instead of making your days better.”
  • The typewriter lives on in India. “India’s typewriter culture survives the age of computers in offices where bureaucracy demands typed forms and in rural areas where many homes don’t have electricity.”
  • Teen volunteers to ghostwrite life tales for patients. “For some teen volunteers at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West, they’re discovering more about many patients’ backgrounds — and themselves in the process — during one-on-one interviews through a program called Life Stories. Started in January, the program offers two volunteers — this summer it’s 18-year-old Zack Welch and 15-year-old Lauren Harrell — a chance to get to know patients of all ages by asking questions relating to life as a child, interesting vacations, their jobs and careers, and dating and marriage.”

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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

Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup two of my favorite items are Tracking Personal Histories Across Time and a Granata essay by Mavis Gallant, Memory and Invention. Gallant, one of the world’s great short story writers, raises challenging questions for all of us involved in helping others recall memories. And Tracking Personal Histories is a meticulous recreation of a present day portrait from one taken years ago. The pictures are shown side by side and the effect is totally absorbing.

  • Hospice patients put life stories on CD, video for loved ones. “David Bishop heard his mother’s voice on the way to her funeral last year. It was coming over the car’s speakers, and she was talking about what a beautiful day it was as she sat in her kitchen…Eileen Bishop told her story to volunteers as part of the “Life Legacy” service offered through Florida Hospital’s HospiceCare. The program, one of several in Central Florida, is free and is offered to all patients willing and able to participate.”
  • Story sharing to educate. “Hoping to foster better understanding of the everyday lives of LGBTI people, the founder of digital story-sharing site Rainbow Family Tree is urging community members to share their tales of “life, love, family and loss” online.”
  • All-TIME 100 Best Nonfiction Books. “Politics and war, science and sports, memoir and biography — there’s a great big world of nonfiction books out there just waiting to be read. We picked the 100 best and most influential written in English since 1923, the beginning of TIME … magazine.” [Thanks to APH member Catherine McCrum of alerting me to this item.]
  • Tracking Personal Histories Across Time. “Sander Koot’s series Back from the Future is a pairing of new portraits of the individual with an older picture of that person from years past.. he only photographs individuals after interviewing them. “In this project, I ask people to find old portraits of themselves, of which they have good memories,” says Koot. “When talking to them about the picture, you see them reliving the happy moment. Only after I know all the details about the past of that picture, (do) we start the shoot.”
  • Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert [release date September 13, 2011] “I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”
  • Stationery’s New Followers. “Social-media fans are embracing paper. While United States Postal Service sees a decline in mailed letters overall, tech-savvy paper-lovers—in frequent contact via blogs, Facebook and Twitter—are giving rise to a host of small stationery makers.” [Thanks to cj madigan of Shoebox Stories for alerting me to this item.]
  • Memory and Invention: An Essay by Mavis Gallant. “Imagination, all invention, will occur spontaneously – occur or interfere. ‘Interference’ means it is false, mistaken, untrue. Although I have kept a journal for years, I never look anything up. A diary is not a dictionary or the record of a meeting. Sometimes a sharp, insistent image caught in one’s mind, perhaps of a stranger glimpsed only once, will become the living source of a whole story.”

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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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