Tag Archives: personal history

Encore! The #1 Secret to a Successful Life Story Interview.

Picture this. You sit down to conduct a personal history interview. You pull out your voice recorder and your client looks stricken. You reassure her that there’s no need to worry and ask your first question. She looks at the floor and gives a brief two or three word response.  It doesn’t get any better. It feels as though your “pulling teeth”. Beads of perspiration break out on your forehead. You finish the interview and leave for home, tired and discouraged.

What went wrong?… Read more.

Why Haven’t You Done Your Life Story?

That’s the question I was asked one day by a personal history client.   I muttered something about being too busy and feebly joked about not being able to afford it. As a professional personal historian, it wasn’t my best moment. Why should anyone hire me if I didn’t believe enough in life stories to do my own?

I think as professionals we need to “walk-the-talk”. Would you hire an interior decorator who was uninterested in his own home’s appearance? What about the professional organizer who tells you she never has time to organize her own office? The chances are you’d probably have second thoughts about hiring them.

If we haven’t had our life story told, we can’t  talk about the experience in a personal and authentic manner.  Imagine, on the other hand, what a powerful selling point to be able to enthusiastically share with a potential client the rewards of having had your own life story documented.

I have a modest proposal. If you’re a professional personal historian and haven’t  had your life story told, here’s what to do:

I wonder how many other professional personal historians out there have never had their life stories told? Am I the only one?

Photo by Amarand Agasi

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4 Ways to Get Control of a Runaway Interview.

A weakness common to novice interviewers  is their inability to take charge of an interview.  Interviews frequently look  like a runaway train with the interviewer gamely hanging on to the proverbial  little red caboose.

Taking charge doesn’t mean forcing or dictating the direction of the interview. It’s more like riding a horse. Anyone familiar with riding knows that it requires confidence and a gentle hold on the reins. The same  approach applies to interviewing.

Here are four ways to keep control of your interview:

1. From the outset be clear what you want from the interview.

If you’re clear before you start on the topic that you want to explore and its parameters then it makes it easier  to stay on track.

For example, if you know you want to capture a client’s childhood stories about summer holidays, then start your interview by saying something like, “Tom, today I’d like you to think back to your childhood and your summer holidays. What’s a particularly strong memory of the games you played?”

2. Use short, focused questions.

The more precise your questions the more specific the answers from your interviewees.  For example, a good question would be “What was your Mother’s special gift or talent?” A poor question would be “Tell me about your family.”

Questions that aren’t specific make interviewees anxious because they don’t know what you’re searching for.  If you continue to follow-up with vague, unfocused questions, their trust will erode and so will the interview.

3. Gently interrupt.

It’s difficult, I know. It seems somehow impolite. But you’d be surprised how many people really don’t mind being interrupted in an interview. In fact they appreciate that you’re paying attention and bringing them back on topic.

To  interrupt  politely wait for your interviewee to pause before stepping in.  For example, “Margaret, this is a fascinating story about your aunt. Later we’ll be taking more time  to talk about your extended family. But I’d like to come back to the earlier question I asked about your mother?”

It’s important to acknowledge the interviewees’ remarks, assure them that the topic will be covered, and then gently nudge them back on track.

4. Go where there’s passion.

Sometimes it’s best to throw your plans out the window. An apparent innocent question on your part might trigger  a strong emotional response in your interviewees that has no apparent connection to your question.  If this happens,  take the time to explore the story behind the emotion.

Clearly your interviewees wants to talk about this now. If you put them off by forcing them back on topic, you can lose a really important story.


If you’re just starting out as a professional personal historian, I hope these suggestions will be helpful. Use them as guidelines not as hard and fast rules. Interviewing is more an art than a science.  With experience comes an intuitive sense of how to guide an interview and get the best possible story.

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Photo by Mazeau

Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup if you like to see how things are created, don’t miss How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made. If you’re a fan of vintage neon signs, you’ll love  An Architect’s Quest to Document New York’s Neon Heritage. 

  • Is a Bookless Library Still a Library? “We’ve been hearing about it for years, but the bookless library has finally arrived, making a beachhead on college campuses. At Drexel University’s new Library Learning Terrace, which opened just last month, there is nary a bound volume, just rows of computers and plenty of seating offering access to the Philadelphia university’s 170 million electronic items.”
  • One word or two? “Frequently confused word lists abound, and a good list can be a copyeditor’s dear friend when a brain cramp sets in or a deadline looms … It struck me that copyeditors might find a quick list of these word pairs a handy tool to fight a sudden brain cramp.”
  • How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made. “In this fascinating short documentary, part of The Getty Museum‘s excellent Making Art series on ArtBabble, we get to see the astounding patience and craftsmanship that went into the making of medieval illuminated manuscripts.”
  • The Me My Child Mustn’t Know. “Everyone has a past, and it’s a very personal decision to reveal — or not reveal — the more unsavory bits to our children. It’s possible for most people to smooth out the rough edges of their histories, to edit out indiscretions or sanitize their mistakes. After all, some things are none of our kids’ business, right?” [Thanks to Pat McNees of Writers and Editors for alerting me to this item.]
  • An Architect’s Quest to Document New York’s Neon Heritage. “Kirsten Hively is an architect with an unusual affection: not for buildings but kitschy neon signs, on storefronts and against windows. Hively scoured New York City for remnants of what was once abundant in the city, photographing them as part of her series Project Neon. So far, the architect has over 400 photos, as well as a modified Google Map with pins tacked to the signs’ locations.”
  •  Northern B.C. ghost town resurrected on Facebook. “Ramona Rose is raising a town from the dead. But she’s not an exorcist; she’s an archivist. The University of Northern B.C. head of archives and special collections runs a project to preserve what remains of a ghost town. Using Facebook, she’s been rebuilding Cassiar as a virtual community.”
  • 10 Life Lessons from Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” Interviews. “Since 1998, Esquire magazine has conducted more than 300 interviews with artists, athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians, scientists and writers. The series — called “What I’ve Learned” — provides a fascinating cross-section of the lives of prominent people. From Buzz Aldrin to Batman, the interview list reads like a Who’s Who of our era.”

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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.


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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Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup Famous Last Words should provide an entertaining distraction.  Here’s a sample of what you’ll find.

“Yes, it’s tough, but not as tough as doing comedy.” Actor Edmund Gwenn, upon being asked if he thought dying was tough.

On a more serious note take a look at Why Indiscretions Appear Youthful. This is interesting reading for personal historians.

  • 100 Places to Find Your Next Great Read. “Whether you’re into classics, mysteries, or a fluffy romance novel, it can sometimes be a challenge to find new books to fall in love with. However, the Internet is full of great sites that can help you get connected with books that you’ll really enjoy reading. Check out these communities, review sites, and other outposts of quality books to discover great stories.”
  • Roll Your Own E-Books. “Want to ditch the heavy backpack full of books and join the digital book revolution? Here’s out guide to creating a digital copy of just about any book — whether it’s your own masterpiece or an old paper copy of Cervantes — into a digital book.”
  • Library archivist explains how to research the history of an old house. “Anyone who lives in an older house knows it has a story to tell about its past, if only they could unearth it. When you live in an old house, “You form a bond,” Debra Charpentier, archivist at the Millicent Library, told an audience of close to 50 people at the library on Saturday.”
  • Online Storytelling Part 1 – EdmontonStories. “The City of Edmonton created the online storytelling repository EdmontonStories after corporate branding research revealed a big “perception gap” between local residents and other Canadians. Edmontonians generally love their city, with its endless sunshine, ample parkland and lively festivals. Outside of Edmonton, however, the city is often stereotyped as a shopping mecca and tax haven with miserable weather, little historical interest and poor liveability… One certain measure of EdmontonStories’ success is the sheer diversity of content now offered on the site. Stories are available in 17 languages, with both text and video content.”
  • Famous Last Words. “Last Words are interesting, illuminating and entertaining.  The Famous Last Words widget quotes some of the best epitaphs, last words, and final quotes from celebrities, celebrity gravestones, and old funny tombstones. We’ve provided them here in widget and feed format so that you can add them to your website, blog, or personal homepage in order to receive a different one every day to reflect upon.”
  • Why Indiscretions Appear Youthful. “We can’t make up the past, but the brain has difficulty placing events in time, and we’re able to shift elements around,” said Anne E. Wilson, a social psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. “The result is that we can create a personal history that, if not perfect, makes us feel we’re getting better and better.” [Thanks to Hella Buchheim of lifestorytriggers.com for alerting me to this item.]

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Monday’s Link Roundup.

This Monday’s Link Roundup has some creative ways to tell stories. There’s Levi Strauss & Co.’s EXPLORE which uses video vignettes to tell the story of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Facebook has launched Facebook Stories. My favorite link is RFID Tags used to attach stories to charity shop’s donated goods.

  • EXPLORE. “In 2010, Levi Strauss & Co. began a collaboration in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a broken town struggling to reinvent itself. As part of this collaboration, Levi Strauss & Co. invested in Braddock’s community center, public library, and urban farm. The result is a campaign that tells the story of the people of Braddock.”
  • Free Genealogy Books on The Internet Archive. “The Internet Archive, also known as “The Wayback Machine,” is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.”
  • Facebook Stories. “Facebook will finally reach the impressive 500 million user milestone sometime this coming week. To celebrate, it’ll launch “Facebook Stories,” a visual memorial to all the ways the social network has changed people’s lives.”
  • Luxury Lit: A Book For $75,000. “For $75,000, you can buy a piece of Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar. Taschen contracted the Vatican’s book binder to put together SUMO because it was so large. Luxury publisher Kraken Opus mixed in a pint of Mr. Tendulkar’s blood with paper pulp to create the signature page for a book celebrating the renowned batsman’s career. The 10 limited-edition copies, which comes out in February, cost $75,000 each and have already sold out.”
  • Momma, Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away. “This week, Kodachrome went away. The last roll of Kodachrome film was developed at Dwayne’s Photo Service in Parsons, Kansas. We have witnessed an historic shift in technology.”

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Monday’s Link Roundup.

This Monday’s Link Roundup has some sobering news for those of us whose work is fairly sedentary. You’ll want to check out Stand Up While You Read This! And not to suggest that we can eliminate editors but there’s a very cool free site that analyzes your writing. Just for fun why not give  Paper Rater a try?

  • Stand Up While You Read This! “Your chair is your enemy. It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting — in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home — you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.”
  • Paper Rater Analyzes and Improves Your Writing. “If you like to write but lack confidence in your skills, Paper Rater is a a free, web-based service that analyzes your writing and offers feedback on your grammar, spelling, and more. Paper Rater couldn’t be easier to use. Just paste in the text you want analyzed, choose what type of content it is—essay, research paper, speech, etc.—and submit it for review. Within seconds, Paper Rater generates a report that analyzes several aspects of your submission.”
  • Caprock Quilters sew on memories. “The beginning of Operation Homefront Quilts began on a May afternoon in 2003 when Jessica Porter, a young quilter, thought of the idea of sending handmade quilts to the families of every fallen service member, regardless of the branch in which they served. With the help of her mother, Joanne Porter, and her community, the organization was lifted off its feet.”
  • Oral history of jazz in Britain. “… a collection of 200 interviews assembled between 1984 and 2003, were intentionally left unedited and untranscribed. The contributors were allowed to speak for themselves and to say what they wanted.”
  • TeleKast Is a Snazzy Open Source Telepromter App. “Windows/Linux: Whether you want to produce an amateur news segment, deliver a teleprompted speech, or just record a video message without a lot of “ums”, free, open-source application TeleKast is a solid desktop teleprompter worth checking out.”
  • Business.gov. The offical small business and independent contractor’s link to the U.S. government. “Business.gov helps small businesses understand their legal requirements and locate government services from federal, state and local agencies.” [Thanks to Pat McNees at Writers and Editors for alerting me to this site.] For Canadians there is a government site for entrepreneurs at Canada Business.

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5 Reasons You Should Consider a Video Life Story.

videoMost people when they consider a life story project think of a book. There are a lot of good reasons for producing a book. But I’ll be honest. I have a video bias because producing video personal histories is my specialty. I also produce books  but video is my passion. To see a sample of my work click here. So why should you consider a video for your or someone else’s  personal history? Here are five good reasons.

  1. Video conveys the emotional content of a story. Watching someone choke up over a sad memory or laugh heartily at an embarrassing childhood moment powerfully captures a person’s innermost feelings.
  2. Video shows a person’s special little traits. One of the great strengths of video is that you can see and hear the person being interviewed. We are reminded of their uniqueness by the twinkle in their eye, their infectious smile, or their easy laugh.
  3. Video harnesses a rich array of  media elements. Videos weave together interviews, photos, family movies, archival stock footage, music, sound effects, and graphics to produce a seamless and rich tapestry of an individual’s  life.
  4. Videos are highly portable and easily duplicated. A DVD weighs ounces and can be shipped inexpensively anywhere in the world. Now with a high speed connection you can send your video to someone through the Internet. DVDs can also be easily and inexpensively duplicated.
  5. Videos appeal to a media savvy younger audience. Your children and your children’s children have grown up with computers, videos, and text messaging. If you want to get them to sit down with a family member’s life story, chances are they’ll watch a sixty-minute video before they’ll read a lengthy book.

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7 Reference Books No Professional Personal Historian Should Be Without.

reference book

This is by no means a definitive book list. These are the seven rather eclectic books that I’ve found indispensable in my work over the years. What are the books you find crucial to your work as a personal historian? Add your list to my comments box below. I’d love to hear from you!

Flickr photo by Monika Bargmann. Original image source unknown.

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