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Ten Good Life Story Interview Starters

By Tom Gilbert - Copyright © November, 2012

Getting people to talk about their lives requires consideration, tact and some good questions.

Everybody has a story. Not everyone is willing to offer it up, though. But for those who are willing what we need to do is let our family members and friends know that we value them and their stories.

Having some good starter questions can help you get the “gold” of a good life story. Keep in mind these are suggestions and I am not implying you have to use them. I certainly wouldn’t suggest trying to use all of them in one sitting! But I believe in these questions and I’ve had success using them.

When you do find the right time to interview someone be sure to let them know you are interested in hearing their story. And listen carefully. Let their answers guide you to the next questions.

1. Tell me about a time you got caught doing something embarrassing. This starter question is one that some people will be reluctant to answer, so you need to establish some good trust and rapport. Make it clear you aren’t interested in embarrassing them. If they have a story they are willing to share this can be a great opportunity to show some vulnerability and perhaps a lesson learned. Others who learn about the experience will relate and quite possibly have a higher opinion of the person who reveals the embarrassing situation.

2. What kind of student were you? This is a great question for a child to ask of an elder. If they are in school they know what it is like to do well or poorly on tests and assignments. By fourth grade or higher they have formed opinions about school. They might be surprised that the grandmother, uncle or cousin they always thought was so intelligent actually struggled in High School. Or they may discover that they share the same love of art, science or reading.

3. What made your favorite vacation so special? Don’t you have a vacation that meant a lot to you? Traveling to someplace you’ve never been; discovering new cultures; crossing off an item on your “bucket list” (you finally made it to Paris) – get them to share about how this destination or getaway affected their lives.

4. Who do you look to for inspiration when dealing with a life problem? This could be a very revealing answer. Each of us has someone they look up to. But phrasing the question this way (asking about who they might seek advice from) tells us both about their ways of dealing with challenges and who has helped them.

5. Tell me about the best concert you ever saw. Music is important in many people’s lives and live performances are often preserved in our memories in a special way. I know that certain concerts I’ve been to are often life story moments I like to share. Music truly is the universal language.

6. If you could meet one of your ancestors who would it be…and why? This gets your interview subject thinking about who in their family tree they’d like to know more about and therefore enhances their appreciation for personal history. And we get an insight into why they want to know more about their family history.

7. Tell me your earliest memory. Many personal historians consider this the one great question to ask anyone. Maybe you are mentally walking back through the years right now as you consider your earliest memories.

8. Where do you go for a good meal? Meals are great conversation opportunities and what food we like and where we like to dine helps us understand what ambiance brings out good conversation.

9. What special talent do you possess? Modesty aside, everybody knows they are good at something. It might be singing in the car, doodling on napkins or public speaking. You might already have an idea of their talent, but find out what they think.

10. Tell me about an event in your life that was a turning moment (life changing). Ok, that’s a biggie. Life changing events can truly be turning moments in life and they carry with them great lessons. Give them plenty of time to think about and respond to this question. Probe carefully and kindly.

I hope you find these starter questions helpful. The holidays are a good time to spend time with loved ones and can be an ideal time to get somebody to share their life story. For the past several years the day after Thanksgiving  has been designated the “National Day of Listening” by StoryCorps. They recommend using that day as an opportunity to interview a family member and help preserve some personal history. You can find out more at www.nationaldayoflistening.org.

Read other articles on life-story writing here.







 

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