Helpful Oral History Prompts to Get Your Older Relatives Talking

How to Encourage Family Members to Tell Their Life Stories

Oral History Prompts to Get Older Relatives Talking

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We all have a story or two to tell. But when we are met with resistance from relatives who are too bashful to tell us the stories of their lives, it can create holes in our family history research that can often result in empty family tree branches.

Conducting oral history interviews with your older family members is that important when it comes to your family history research. The memories your relatives have of their own lives hold a good amount of historical importance — even if family members don’t think their lives were particularly interesting! In fact, oral history interviews can sometimes lead to the discovery of ancestors you never knew about in the first place. But if you don’t record these stories now, they could be lost forever.

So how do you get your older relatives talking about their lives? The following oral history prompts and tips may just jog the memories of your older relatives so you can capture and collect their important stories.

Oral History Prompts for Family History Research

The best way to get your older relatives talking is to approach oral history in a completely informal manner. Doing so will help relatives feel at ease and more apt to share their memories. Keep this in mind as you prepare your oral history interview questions. And don’t forget to hit the record button on your smartphone or tape recorder. 

Trigger a Memory

Sometimes, it isn’t enough to ask a family member to tell you about their lives. For one, this is too broad of a question! Instead, think about some memory triggers that could inspire your relative to talk. One of the best triggers to use is an old family photograph. So, pull out the family photo albums and ask your older family members to identify people in the pictures. Talking about the photos will often trigger memories that your relative will want to divulge. Listening to old records and talking about the history of family heirlooms together can also prompt relatives to start sharing life memories.

Formulate Friendly, Open-Ended Questions

While using memory triggers, ask your relative questions that they can’t give just a “yes” or “no” answer to. Instead, think about using prompts such as, “Describe x”, “What was that like?”, “How did that happen?”, “Why did that occur?”, and so on. Carefully listen to the answers so you can ask follow up questions that may not be on your list. And always engage with your family member by using friendly body language such as nodding, smiling and leaning in. If your family member shares an unhappy moment with you, let them know you care. Comments like, “That must have been awful” or “That sounds very sad.” will show you empathize with them. This also allows trust to be built, encouraging your relatives to talk about their lives even more.

Verbalize Your Excitement

While you may have a long list of prepared questions for your oral history interview, Great-Grandpa Joe and Grandma Joan don’t want to be rushed through their memories just so you can get to the next question! In addition to keeping oral history interviews informal, and showing your care, the act of adding verbal encouragement to your session can be extremely beneficial. If you find a story interesting, tell your relative, “That’s so interesting! Tell me more about that.” Or if you get excited about a discovery of an ancestor that is missing from your tree say something like, “How incredible! What else can you tell me about that person?.” Letting your relatives know that you’re enjoying their stories is a good way to keep them talking.

Are you looking for oral history interview questions? Check out these 30 family history questions to ask your older relatives, and use them along with the prompts above. 

What tactics have you used to get your older relatives talking during oral history interviews? Let us know on Twitter! Then add their pictures and stories to your Crestleaf Family Tree!