"The Natural Approach to Oral History Interviews and the Two Critical Questions You Must ALWAYS Ask" by Robert Ragan (Part 2) Continued from Part 1

"Writing Prompts" and "Memory Prompts"

One Mother's Day, I gave my Mom a blank journal. She surprised me by saying that she had been thinking about starting a journal. I also gave her a book (that has questions and plenty of room to write) called "The Book of Myself - A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions" by Carl and David Marshall.

Here are a few of the writing prompts from the book:

-This is what we usually did at Thanksgiving.

-I want you to know this about my grandmother(s).

-I want you to know this about my grandfather(s).

-One book that had a very strong impact on me was.

-I am proud of my sibling(s) for this reason.

Here is one of my favorites:

-My predictions for each of my grandchildren are these…

As you read these few writing prompts, didn't your mind automatically start to fill in the rest of the story with your own experiences? You see how you can convert these writing prompts into questions don't you?

Still, the questions seem a little stiff. One of the best ones is, “I am proud of my sibling(s) for this reason.”

This can be changed into a question like, “Why are you so proud of your brother, Ron?” If say, your Mother has a brother named Ron that she is close to, this would be a good question to ask.

Memory prompts can be anything: An object, a place, a song, a smell, a person sitting next to you reminding you (it happens when family stories are told), but one of the best memory prompts are photographs.

When you are doing an oral history interview, make sure they have their photo albums handy. These are some of the most valuable memory triggers.

Memories start to unfold; they speak volumes; your questions will come naturally; times flies; you hardly even look at your list and you will have fun.


In the case of oral history interviews, convert writing prompts and memory prompts into QUESTION prompts, but…

Remember the first critical question? “How do you feel about your children?”

The oral history and autobiography list I have seen lack the word “feel,” which is a mystery to me for two reasons:

1. How wonderful to know how someone you care about feels about something, especially another family member. This will be one of the most treasured parts of the recording.

2. It is the perfect open-ended question that gives them a wide-open canvas on which to paint a picture with words and emotion.

I Didn't Plan on Nana Being There, But What If She Hadn't Been?

In June 1993 my Grandpa Ragan from Texas and his brother who we call "Uncle Jimmy" came to visit the family here in Jacksonville, Florida. I thought that this would be a great time to do an interview with them both. I had planned to do a "formal" oral history.

We were set to do it at my Aunt Dot's (Grandpa's daughter who lives here in town) home. My wife and I went to her home "boy-scout-prepared" with plenty of cassette tapes, a tape recorder and a list of "memory jogging" questions (just in case I got stuck).

When Aunt Dot came home from work to join us that evening, she brought my dear Grandmother (who lives in town too) who we call "Nana" to join us as well. So now, this was going to be a GROUP interview. Which is fine, but a little harder to moderate than a one-on-one, or even a two-on one interview. However, this was the night that I discovered that group interviews were my favorite kind to do.

You see… Nana and Grandpa Ragan had divorced many years ago and had both remarried. But, they have remained friends through all the years. I've always thought that this was a wonderful thing. Nana, being as feisty as she is sweet, had DIFFERENT memories of certain past events than Grandpa did. There were some funny moments as they kept each other's story "correct."

It turned out that I didn't need my list. What we did that day was mostly tell family stories. But I made sure that I asked them the hard question. It turned out to be one of the most special things I could have done.

Make SURE You Ask the "Hard Question"

Okay, here it is. This is the SECOND question that you must ask in an interview. It’s hard to do and it will take some nerve and backbone on your part…but don't you falter. This is important.

Here’s what happened to me when I asked the hard question on this day to my group of loved ones. This is an actual transcript:

This was hard and slightly awkward for me, but I said, "I have a question that I want to ask all four of you: If you were gone tomorrow, what would you want to be remembered for? Not what you want on your epitaph, but ­ how would you want people to remember you? Grandpa - for my great grandson, what would you say to him?"

Grandpa Ragan said, "I would say that I always tried to treat people fairly. I never intentionally ever tried to beat anybody out of anything."

"I would like to see some of the anecdotes that I say once in a while, like: You don't learn nothing with your mouth open. I use that quite often.

Yeah - if you can't say it on the phone in five minutes on the telephone, go visit them. I'd like to be well thought of. And I think I would be."

Nana was reluctant to answer so we had to encourage her a little. I said, "Okay Nana - I want to know. For my great-great grandchildren, what do you want to be remembered for? Besides what I tell them "

Nana replies, "Well… I try to be kind to everybody - good to everybody. I love everybody, especially my children and my grandchildren and great-grand children. I just want to be remembered as a nice person."

I said, "I don't think you'll have any problem there." Then Grandpa Ragan chimes in, "You wish you hadn't been so hard to get along with so I could've stayed there."

Nana exclaims, "You mean you wish YOU hadn't. Here we go again…

If he hadn't been so mean and ornery." <laughter>

IMPORTANT Personal Note: I had intended to do a formal textbook interview that night. I didn't think to make sure that Nana would be there. How grateful I am that she was. I had intended to interview her anyway (one day soon), but since she lived so close I kept putting it off.

I had no idea that in a few months she would have to go to the hospital for surgery. My mom and I took her in to the hospital after a routine visit to the doctor.

She was as fine, funny, and feisty as ever. She wanted me to take a gallon of milk, that she had just bought that day, home with me. I didn't want to take it because I thought she would be out in a few days.

She never fully recovered from the surgery. She was in the hospital for months. Just before the end of the year, she passed away and went back home.


Here is how you can ask the hard question:

In my group interview, I put the “what would you want to be remembered for” question two ways:

-If you were gone tomorrow, what would you want to be remembered for?

-For my great-great grandchildren, what do you want to be remembered for? (Besides what I tell them).

Then there is the reliable “If you got hit by a bolt of lightning tomorrow” (or some other quick and strange ending), how would you want to be remembered?

If you just say, “What do you want to be remembered for?” It is a bit tame. But if you paint a picture in their mind that BOOM—tomorrow they could be gone, it really makes them stop and think.

The exception, of course, would be if the person you were interviewing were suffering from a serious illness or has suffered the recent loss of a loved one.

Remember my interview with my Dad on his boat? Here is the transcript of how I asked him the hard question:

A piece of Skylab falls out of the sky and ends your life tomorrow. How would you like to be remembered?”

"The normal things that any man would want. To be known as an honest person, a good father. Not in that order… A good father, a good husband, an honest man, a hard worker–all the things that people would like to be. I haven't been all the things I'd would like to be, but I tried…"

These few simple words are very revealing to those that were close to him. Funny that he would mention honesty, twice. It was one of his most important values that he believed in and taught us when we were growing up.

This question has a lot of special power in it. It does catch the person being interviewed off guard for a few seconds. But it helps them to open up and express some important heartfelt things. The answers to this question will certainly be a treasure.


So do you have it? The hard question is in two parts:
  1. Gone suddenly tomorrow, somehow.
  2. How would you like to be remembered?

The MOST IMPORTANT thing that I can share with you about this subject is: Do it NOW! It doesn't have to be perfect. Just get the tape recorder and turn it on when a family member (or group) is near. Or, get the video camera and set it up to record. Make a simple, basic plan and begin. That plan needs to be flexible.

Maybe all you will do is pull a few family members aside at the next holiday get-together and have them share some family stories. I promise you everyone will have fun. Then you need to take a deep breath and ask each one of them the hard question and ask them how they feel about their children, and perhaps grandchildren.

When you are done, you will walk away with a priceless treasure. Your family members will be profoundly grateful to you.

TIPS: The cassette tape (not those little micro-cassettes either–poor quality) is your better choice for oral histories. Radio Shack sells some excellent recorders, the size of a peanut butter sandwich, that work great. With a video camera, the person usually gets self-conscious and it is harder for them to relax.

You can record the interview on cassette but think about also bringing a video camera to get some footage of them talking, their home and possibly some of the local sites. Also, it is a good idea to bring a camera (digital if you have one) to take pictures of some of their photographs.

Work with whatever equipment you have and bring fresh batteries and battery chargers.

See, it is not so complicated. You can do this.

I encourage you to use your time and talents to preserve your personal family history along with your genealogy.

Your family history is here and now and goes far beyond names, dates and places…

Small, simple things that you take time to do today; can become priceless treasures that are passed down through generation in your family.

Think about it. Won't you?