Value your story!

Louise

In my business as a personal video biographer, I often hear people say “but I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say” or “Oh, I’ve lived a boring life. You know who you should speak to is …”. Or there’s just the really common one of “I wouldn’t have anything to say”.

Now, I’ve always maintained that everyone has a story, regardless of age, experience, background etc. I’ve interviewed my 6 year old daughter numerous times ever since she could talk. The answers she gives to questions I think I know the answers to are often fascinating.

Similarly, I have interviewed older family members and found out many things about them that I had never heard before. After my Grandad died (he had been my first video interviewee almost 10 years ago) we were driving past a fairly new church in my Mum’s home town of Stawell, Vic, Australia. I pointed to the church and said to my daughter, “there used to be a house there and my Grandad was born in that house”. My Mum, who was driving,  said “Really, how did you know that?”. “He told me in the interview I did with him”, I said. That was one of my first experiences of realising that we often don’t know or find out things about our loved ones merely because we don’t think to ask them and they don’t think to tell us. You see, my Mum was very close to my Grandad, yet she didn’t know the exact place where he was born.

I think hesitancy to be interviewed on video often comes down to two (2) things:

1. People don’t value what they have contributed to the world.

It’s much easier for us to look at others and see their achievements, or believe people we know who tell great stories are much more interesting than we are. It seems to be much harder for us to acknowledge that many of the things we take for granted are actually fascinating stories to family members and others. From personal experience, I know that once I have moved on from a dramatic period in my life, or have learned to adapt to a particular situation, I tend to play down the courage, adaptability and skills that are/were involved in those experiences. When I do go into detail with people I think will actually be interested, I find they are often inspired by what I’ve accomplished or how I manage things.

Maybe it’s just human nature to play down the importance of dramatic or challenging times. It allows us to move on with the rest of our lives. But largely, I think, it is a case of a learned behaviour of invalidating ourselves. I know in Australia the “tall poppy syndrome” is alive and thriving. We get taught very early not to brag or ‘skite’ about our achievements – not to “get a big head” when we achieve something great. Aussies are notorious for championing the battler, but if/when the battler actually starts winning/succeeding in a major way – Chop! Off with their head – just like if a poppy grows much taller than the rest of the crop. It’s almost a national sport to build people up and then cut them down with gossip, innuendo, criticism and so on.

When someone who has initially resisted being interviewed because they didn’t think their story would be interesting changes their mind for whatever reason, I find I’m the one who sometimes has to end the interview because I had only allocated an hour or so (because they had been so reluctant or notoriously ‘shy’). If I have unlimited time, it’s amazing how long a supposedly shy person who has ‘led a boring life’ or ‘has nothing to say that’s interesting’ can tell stories for. And quite often these people tell the most fascinating stories.

I often describe my video interviews as just like sitting down for a cuppa and having a chat – there’s just a video camera and a couple of lights around as well. Once I get people started I think they really enjoy it, and in the process begin to value their life story. That’s the really gratifying bit.

Recently I got my husband to interview me, as I am always on the other end of the camera and I really wanted to capture some of my life story for my daughter and future generations. I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it. It was so nice reminiscing about my childhood, and even when it came to more difficult topics, I realised how much I had learned and grown from those times as the words came out of my mouth.

2. A video camera is involved

When the word video is mentioned even the most gregarious, apparently confident people can do a double-take. It’s funny how intimidated we can be by the thought of having a visual record of ourselves versus an audio or written one. I’m not sure exactly what it is – maybe we’re so caught up in our worries of how we’ll look that we get scared. This can be the case for an 80 year old as much as for a 16 year old.

Once people sit down and start talking, however, I find they very quickly forget there’s a camera there. The key is to set your equipment up so that it is all under control, then start the conversation. Once you engage your interviewee  in a conversation, and as long as you’re not constantly checking your camera or adjusting lights, they will very quickly start to enjoy the experience and forget about the camera. It really is just like having a chat over a cup of tea or coffee.

One tip I have for anyone looking to interview a family member who is extremely reluctant is to suggest you just do 10 questions. I did that with my Dad, and I was fully intending to stick to it. But he got into it so much I actually had to stop and change the tape after 45 minutes. I really thought he would only do the 10 questions then run out the door as he is one of the most humble peoople I know. But we did a fantastic interview where I found out so many things I didn’t know. I must admit I used the additional line of “if you fell off the end of the earth tomorrow Sophie wouldn’t remember you (she was 3 at the time)”. That was the clincher, but it won’t work for everyone.

So the long and the short of it is I don’t believe there is really anyone out there who has no story, a boring life or has nothing to say. We all have a valuable story, and telling it on video is a way to capture it for your family now and for generations to come.  There are many reasons I prefer video over audio or written biographies, but I’ll go into that one at another time.

Now it’s time to pick up your video and start asking questions. And don’t think you can’t do it. If you can hold a conversation, you can interview someone on video. And if you need tips there are plenty of resources on the web for oral history questions or just contact me and I can point you in the right direction.

Happy memory catching!

(Update: As of Nov 14th 2013 please contact me via email at louise@15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com, visit the 15 Minute Power Plays With Your Kids ebook Facebook or Twitter Page or visit the website www.15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com If you happen to stumble across this post and it’s NOT because I’ve linked to it from my book, pop over and say hi anyway :-). Please  DO NOT go to my previous website at www.itsmylifeproject.com.au as it has been hacked)

Louise Hocking

Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

10 tips for interviewing your young child on video

  1. Ask simple questions. Usually in an interview I would suggest using open-ended questions, but with young kids it’s a bit different. The questions need to specific and simple if you want them to open up. Later in the conversation or at later ages, open-ended questions work better. I’ll give you an example – “Did you go to school this week?” “What was your favourite thing you did at school this week?” “What did you like most about doing that?” “Who did you do it with?” “Did something funny happen at school this week?” “Tell me how the funny thing happened” “Was there anything else that you did this week that was fun?”.

  1. Get them to tell you about something they’ve done recently.

  1. Get them to sing a song they love

  1. Ask them to dance for you

  1. Ask lots of “favourite” questions. Eg What is your favourite book? What do you like about it? Who’s your favourite person/character in the book? Who gave it to you?

  1. Ask leading questions – about things you already know they have been talking about, but would like to capture. Eg. Something they’ve just done at school or kinder, a party they’ve just been to, a holiday they’ve just been on. “You just went to Queensland didn’t you. Tell me what you did up there”

  1. Pick a topic to focus on in your ten minutes and stick to it. Maybe you might like to get your child talking about their grandparents, for instance. It could go something like “How ‘bout you tell me about ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandad’ today” “What do you like doing with Grandma?” “Tell me about a time with Grandma that made you laugh?” “What’s your favourite thing about Grandma?” “Where do they live?” “What do you like doing when you visit them?”etc etc

  1. Ask them to tell you a story or read you a book (even if they can’t read, they make up great stories if you can get them going)

  1. Mix it up. Pick two or three of the above and combine them. Sometimes you will find your child is talkative, and other times not. If asking them about one thing doesn’t work, or they’re too shy this time to sing (even though they did last time), try another one of the ideas.

  1. If they’re really not into it or really don’t want to, don’t force the issue. This will just lead to them hating when the camera comes out. Either put it away completely or suggest doing it a bit later. Because I’ve done little interviews with my daughter since she could speak, and videoed her from a very young age, she is used to it. One thing she really loves is when I turn the video screen around so she can see herself. It can be a trap at times, as they see it as a fascinating mirror (and start to pull faces, poke out their tongue etc), but if they’re reluctant it can be a good way to get them to at least sit in front of the camera.
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