Tips on Recording your Family Stories

If you have elderly family members who love to reminisce about “the old days”, then you have a truly wonderful resource of your family history. Take the opportunity to make the most of their memories and record them for future generations to enjoy, otherwise those opportunities will simply pass away and you will be left wishing you had taken just a little time and effort to record them.


Nowadays, family stories rarely get handed down from generation to generation as they used to. In the past our children would gather around and listen attentively as their family elders recalled stories from their past. But now we seem to be far too busy with school and after-school activities, work and social interaction to be able to make time for these precious moments together. Often we don’t even live near our families, and as life moves on, family members fade away, and one day we suddenly realize that much of heritage has faded away with them.

However, we also live in an age of readily available and reasonably priced recording technology, so it’s easier than ever to gather and share those memories with future generations. So what are you waiting for?

If you are ready to start the process of gathering up those precious memories, then this guide will help you to achieve that goal.

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Step 1


Here’s what you’ll need

Willing Family Members – Only use those family members who are willing and able to take part. Remember that depending on the subject matter, these things can be both stressful and emotional so you need to be sensitive in both your approach and questioning and above all be patient and understanding when things don’t quite come out the way you expect them too.


Recording devices – A digital voice recorder is probably your best tool for capturing your audio, but if you also have a phone that can capture video and photos this can be used as well to supplement the data you are gathering.  A Laptop can be used to both record, store and share data and can also be useful for displaying photos, documents or other prompts during your interviews.


Prompts – A little preparation beforehand gathering photos, letters, birth, marriage, death certificates and a good list of questions to use for prompts will help make this run much more smoothly and make it a much richer experience.

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Step 2


Recording Devices

You will need some method of recording your ‘interviews’. You may want to write or type the stories later, but initially you need to obtain the information using some form of digital recording device. The added benefit to this is that you will be capturing their voices and images as they are telling the story, which will add so much more to future generations experience than just the written word.

Your phone or digital camera may have a voice recorder, but if not you can easily buy a small handheld digital recorder from Argos or elsewhere. You’ll need one that has a “USB” connection so that you can later transfer the files to your PC for editing/sharing.

You could also use your laptop to record both sound and video directly using the built-in camera and microphone, but it is better not to use this as your primary recording device as you will need it for other purposes as explained later.

Think about how you are going to carry out the process. For instance, will it simply be you who will be conducting the interviews, or will you be asking other family members who perhaps live closer to the relative to gather recordings for you? If it’s just you, then a Laptop, camera, phone etc. will work just fine. But if others are involved you may just want to buy a simple digital recording device so that you can send it to them with a list of questions and/or instructions on what you would like them to do and not worry too much about the complexities of operating the equipment.

If you have a digital camera or phone which records video, then it’s really nice to have some video of your elders telling their story. You can then get creative and add things like an “interviewer” (maybe a young grandchild) asking questions or have old friends around for to reminisce and chat. It’s also useful to get some still shots as well that can be used to fill out the story. All of these pieces of information can then be edited together on the Laptop or PC with relative ease later in the day!

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Step 3



You may find your relative is so keen and eager to tell their stories that you just need to turn the recorder on and they’ll start telling their stories spontaneously, without too much prompting. So much the better! But others may need a little guidance and encouragement to tell their stories.

Sometimes elderly folks believe that their lives are of of little interest to anyone else, so you just need to be patient, understanding and reassure them of the value of their memories.

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You may want to prompt your storyteller with personalized questions, such as “do you remember the story you used to tell me about….?” If the story wanders a bit, don’t worry too much, you can edit things out later. When you get an opportunity just gently bring the story back on track with a “placement” questions, such as “Was this when you were in Primary school?”  “Was that your father’s father?” or whatever questions you need to ask to bring things back on track.

You could also use a generic list of questions that cover a wide range of topics. If you would like to see/download such a list you may download them from this link – Questions.

Looking through Old family photos is an excellent way of prompting memories; contact everyone you can using computer ld.jpgthink of who may have access to any relevant photos or pictures, and ask if you may borrow or have a copy. A scanned digital copy would be great because you can then pull it up on your Laptop during your interviews, or print out a copy if required.

Another good tip is to have a friend or family member from your relatives generation on hand. They cam often add to the conversation and help to jog loose those long forgotten memories of events, people or places that they had both experienced together. Any old family documents which are relevant to the person or times you are trying to recall can be really useful as prompts. Newspaper clippings from the time are wonderful time capsules that can immediately transport you back to a period in time that you are trying to remember. Try to encourage your relative to put in as much detail as they like, no matter how irrelevant it may seem to them. It’s likely many future generations will find it both interesting and fascinating.Get elders together.jpg


Remember that memories are not always fact. Your relatives may have told these stories so many times that they’ve been polished and embellished into complete fabrication…or they may have big time gaps due to confusion etc. But these are their recollections and are just as valuable as such. However, if you have a family tree, or documentation at hand that may help them with the timeline, structure, names etc. this will always be helpful.

Note: when using personal prompts such as family photos (especially of people who are no longer with us) or favorite music, perfume etc, try to remember that these can evoke strong emotions, so be sensitive and ask before bringing up these issues, and don’t be tempted to press on regardless.

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Step 4


Organising Your Project

Ask around your family and use the internet and libraries to find as much information as you can about the person your are interviewing. Look at old newspapers from the period to see what was happening at the time and ask questions about it. The more homework you can do beforehand the easier the whole process will be for both of you and of course you will get much more detailed information at the end of the day.

Once you’ve got all of your information and questions together and in order, you should try to give a copy of everything to your relative before you are due to start recording. This will give them time to go through the information and start to think back on the times you have asked about so they can refresh their memories. A few days should be enough, but however long they need.
Plan your interview visit for a time when your relative is likely to be rested and fresh. If there is a lot of information to cover,  tackle it in small chunks over a period of several days or weeks rather than try to get the whole thing done in one stressful go. Many elderly people will get tired very quickly with this kind of mental recall process, so make it enjoyable for all and keep things light and well within their comfort zone.  Always ask if they still feel “up to it” and if it turns out to be an emotional session due to the areas you have covered, be sensitive and take a break. Also be sure to check on them later to see if they’re still OK. Sometimes they will dwell on things long after you have gone.

Keep your recordings separate– It makes it much easier to compile and find things later on if you keep separate files for each area of questioning. Start each recording with a visual or audible “marker” that will help you identify the topic for that particular recording.

Label and Organize your recordings and folders clearly. You can use question numbers, topics, photo names, whatever suites you, as long as you can positively identify and locate them later on. If using photos and videos, put all the related files into their own folder for that particular topic and label the folder accordingly.

Don’t be disappointed if no-one else in your family seems to show as much interest in your project as you do; the time may come when they will be very interested, and your relatives may no longer be around, or they may no longer be able to express or remember their past. This is the whole point of the process and you can be proud of what you have done.

Finally, don’t be daunted by the size of the project. If you can get just a few “family stories” recorded – in any format- you can be happy in the knowledge that you have provided future generations with irreplaceable and treasured resources, so go for it!

Reproduced in part by kind permission of Puzzled

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