DIY Your Parents or Grandparents Life Story
Last month in The Three Tomatoes I wrote about the many reasons WHY you must capture your parents or grandparents life story. This month, I will give some suggestions as to how.
Full disclosure: I run a company that captures the life stories of aging family members and produces them into personal audio documentaries that become family treasures. My interest in this field began when I launched a podcast called “A Life’s Story” that featured the life stories of extraordinary 80 to 100 year olds who had lived through incredible personal or historic events. Doing the podcast series made me realize that every family has a story worth preserving, for their own purposes. I knew this was a service worth providing, and the private audio documentary business was born.
Certainly using a professional will ensure that the finished product will look and sound clean and lovely, that the right questions are asked in the right way, and that all possible enhancements such as editing, narration, music and pacing are included and appropriate. The decision to hire a pro is similar to the decision to hire a professional wedding photographer. Sure, someone would be able to snap photos easily enough from their smartphone at a wedding. Yet most people choose to hire a pro wedding photographer because they want the end product to showcase the people and the event in the best way possible, and be a lasting treasure. A pro produces a high quality end product because they know techniques and tricks that you don’t. A similar calculus applies when you are capturing a life story of someone you love.
End of Commercial. Now to some DIY tips:
- Decide whether the recording will be audio or video. In our experience, many older folks don’t wish to be video recorded. They prefer to be remembered in a younger physical form. If your loved one feels this way, don’t push them into a video recording. Making your parent or grandparent feel uncomfortable with the recording process will only inhibit them and interfere with getting the story- which is what really counts. Instead, opt for audio only recording.
- The room matters. Whether recording audio only or audio and video, set up in a quiet room with soft surroundings such as carpets, upholstered furniture and drapes. This will help cut down on echo. Echo distorts voices and muddles speech. Most folks won’t notice the echo in real time, but it will be painfully evident when you listen back to your finished recording. Whatever you do, don’t record in the kitchen! It is full of hard surfaces that will reflect sound and bounce it around the room.
- Have “second line” questions ready. Asking predictable questions like “How did you meet dad?” will often produce predictable answers and a simple recitation of the facts, ie: “I met dad at a dance when we were 21. He was on leave from the service”. That kind of answer is ok, but only ok. What makes life stories meaningful and interesting is unearthing the feelings behind the facts. To achieve this, think carefully in advance about good follow up questions and how they are worded. An example of “second line” questions in this instance would be “How was dad different than other boys you had dated?” followed by “How did you know he was the one for you?” followed by “What about dad has surprised you over the years?” Craft your second line questions in a way to tap into feelings. The facts will come out on their own. Getting folks to remember and discuss their feelings often needs the springboard of a carefully crafted question.
- Have ‘reflective” questions ready. Reflective questions are the kind that cause someone to look back and take stock of their life in some way. “What have been the big challenges in your life?” “What have been your triumphs?” “How have you dealt with the losses of dear friends and family members through your life?” “Do you consider yourself a happy person?” are just a few examples. The reflective questions will often produce surprising answers, and may open up a new avenue of conversation.
- Technology. Your phone will do a decent job! . Voice recorder on your Iphone will produce good sound in the right circumstances. In that ‘soft’ room I described above, place the phone on a table fairly close to the speakers mouth, within a 12 inch radius. Android devices have similar apps, such as the Samsung Voice Recorder. Fundamentally, your available recording time depends on the amount of free space on your iPhone. As a general rule of thumb, one free gigabyte allows you to record about 101 minutes of stereo uncompressed 44.1kHz WAV audio. That’s a lot of talking!
- Get going now. We all feel we have all the time in the world, until we don’t. Then often, it’s too late. Tell Mom or Dad, Grandpa or Grandma that their life story matters to you, and is something you want to have available to you forever. Pick a time of day that coincides with when your aging relative is most energetic and talkative, and start with an easy open ended question such as “Tell me about your childhood”. With the tips above, it will flow from there.
Leslie Gold is a broadcaster, public speaker, and radio talk show host from NYC known as “The Radiochick”. She is also the host and producer of the top rated “A Life’s Story” podcast series. To hear amazing life stories of extraordinary folks, listen to “A Life’s Story” podcast, on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, and most other podcast platforms. The Life’s Story team also offers for-hire personal audio documentaries to capture forever the life story of your parents or grandparents. Info at www.alifesstory.net