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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Read other articles on life-story writing here.