A better approach to capturing old memories

Over the recent holiday break we were chatting amongst the family about the need to capture the stories of our parents' generation while we still can. How often have I heard people speak with regret about never having done so, their parent's fantastic stories and valuable lessons going with them to the grave?

We were together as a family for a few days and dipped in and out of this conversation over that time. Quite a few stories came up too – stories of my parents' childhoods, the early years of their marriage and so on. Some I'd heard before but there were quite a few special ones that were new to me ... which isn't bad given I'm on the 'wrong' side of 50.

All of which got me thinking.

The challenge of capturing memories

The 'typical' approach to capturing a family history – as a company history – is to sit down and interview 'the people with the memories'. Those interviews are recorded for later transcription. Mostly this is done individually, sometimes in couples or small groups. Sometimes the interviewer knows the family (or business), sometimes they don't.

The problem with this approach is that it relies on salient memories coming to the surface during the interviews. That can be hard to achieve, particularly where (as is often the case) the interviewee is reticent about telling their stories, is spooked by the relative formality of an interview or is put off by the idea of being recorded.

While interviews can generate some great yarns, they can also lead to plenty being left on the mental shelves of their subjects.

The 'catch 'em as they come' approach

One of the reasons interviews have long been a popular way of capturing stories is that, until recently, few people carried a tape recorder in their pocket.

That's all changed now. Virtually everybody has a smartphone with them nearly all the time, which means they also have a voice recorder of decent quality with them too.

If we are conscious of it, we all have the ability to whip out the phone and open a recording app at any time the stories start flowing. Over a cup of tea, during or after dinner, in the pub or a restaurant. Similarly in a business context.

Obviously this needs to have the agreement of the people being recorded, but if you explain that this is going to reduce or remove the need for formal interviews, I think most people will agree.

The recording apps in modern phones aren't archival quality, but they are very good – and certainly better than nothing. And a benefit of using a phone over a recorder is that it doesn't look as scary.

Make it a habit

I've written before about approaching the task of book writing in small bites, rather than trying to find large chunks of time to dedicate to writing. What I'm suggesting here is really a similar approach, applied to interviewing and story capture.

As it does with writing, the approach will work best if you make a habit of it. Better still, get a number of people in the family or business to take on the task of capturing the stories and have them email or upload their recordings to a shared folder on Dropbox or a similar service.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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