12 Tips for Interviewing Family Part One – The Interview

Interviewing family, in my opinion, is one of the best parts of genealogy. It’s fun and rewarding. You, as the interviewer are like a reporter.  You’ll research your subject, do some background investigation, do the interview and report the results. Please keep in mind that there are two posts here, part one is about how to conduct the interview and part two is about how to record the interview.  Both are equally important, please review both.


  1. Start with your eldest family members first!
  2. Find a quiet place to talk. I can’t emphasize this enough. You’ll want a quiet space without the television, screaming kids, lawn mowers, or other distractions.
  3. You’ll want to record audio and/or video of the interview. However, you’ll also want to take notes!  Many times, your recording will not be clear, someone interrupted the interview, or you ran out of memory on your camera /phone and you didn’t realize it. A host of technical problems can happen, and worst of all the audio was unintelligible.  We’ll talk about the technical side of recording an interview easily, in part two.
  4. Take your family member to a brightly lit space so that photos and documents you’re reviewing can be easily seen and video quality is good (if you’re recording).
  5. Do some homework before your interview. Research where the interviewee(s) lived, when they lived there. Learn about local events or history that took place there. Create a list of questions that inquire about the places in your family member’s life.
  6. Prioritize your questions, in case time or energy runs out before the interview is over.  This is especially important for elderly family. In some cases, you may only get a few minutes with them. Start with your top five most important questions first.
  7. Consider the historical events happening during a person’s life time.  For example, a question might be… “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” or “Do you remember your thoughts when you first heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?”  This can open up a lot of great conversations.
  8. Avoid questions that can be answered with just “yes” or “no” answers.  Use open-ended questions that start with “Tell me about a time…” or “How did you feel when…” or “What was it like growing up in…”. Use the five senses as a lead in your questions (sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste).  What is your favorite desert? (taste)… What were the mornings like growing up in the mountains? (sights and sounds)
  9. Bring printouts from your family tree and ask family members to help fill in the blanks. Doing this will also inspire stories and conversation.
  10. Bring photos and ask to help identify people in them.  Be sure to use pencil and write in the back the photos who are in the images, before you forget. Again, this is so important.
  11. Ask about family heirlooms, photos, memorabilia that they might want to share. There’s always a story behind their favorite family heirloom.
  12. Lastly, if nothing else, keep your camera or smart phone handy at family reunions.  Conversations pop up around the dinner table or out on the back deck.  Go ahead and start recording video, while the stories are being told, even if it’s not in the ideal setting.  Go for it. Get it while you can.

Bonus Tips

DNA Test? Ask (in advance of the interview) if they’ll consider doing a DNA test.  Depending on the research needed, I usually recommend all males do both YDNA and Autosomal DNA (atDNA) tests and that women do at least an Autosomal DNA test.

If you need answers on the maternal line, then a Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test might be appropriate too.  The mtDNA test looks only at the mothers, mother’s, mother (and so on) direct line. It’s always good to test the elders DNA while you can.

Get their permission before you buy the test and then administer the test during your visit, while your there interviewing your family members.  Don’t leave the test behind, it will never get done. Trust me, get them do cheek swab or spit in the tube while you’re there.

Where to do a DNA test?  AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), 23andMe, and MyHeritage are popular testing companies. No matter where you test, read the disclaimers so you understand the privacy policy. Also, be prepared for surprises. You never know what you’ll find using DNA as evidence.

What to ask? Prepare in advance of your interview your goals and questions. Refer to the blog post “Learn Genealogy – Kick Start” for the type of information you need to collect.  Also…

Here are a list of questions and topics you can choose, that may inspire questions to ask:

  • Tell me about your parents? Grandparents?  Where were they born? When?
  • Where you in the military? Were other family members in the military? If so, when?
  • What religion or church did your parents/grandparent belong, growing up?
  • What do you remember about your childhood home? Where was it exactly?
  • Do you have copies of family birth, marriage, death certificates you can share?
  • What were the (pick a season) like growing up?
  • How did you feel when you graduated from school?
  • Did you have a favorite pet growing up?
  • What was your father’s occupation?
  • What was school like?  Where did you go to school?
  • Tell me about a time when life was hard?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt appreciated?
  • Tell me about your greatest achievement?
  • Close your eyes and go back to a favorite time as a child.  What do you see, smell, feel? Where are you?
  • Who was/is your favorite president? Why?
  • What do you remember about the great depression (or insert historical event here)?
  • Did you have a pet growing up?
  • What do you want to talk about?
  • What was your favorite television/radio show?  Do you remember your first television (depending on age of the person)?
  • What is the oldest item you own?

Be careful about subjects causing concern, stress, and prying into family secrets. etc.  If family wants you to know, they’ll tell you.  You can always end your conversation with “Is there anything else you want to talk about?”  If they say no, respect them and move on.

Don’t try to ask all of these questions, you’ll exhaust yourself and others.  But use them as inspiration to create your own list. Once the conversation starts to flow, the ideas and follow up questions will come to mind.
Lastly, try not to have more than one or two spectators while doing the interview.  I prefer to interview people alone.

Most of all, have fun. Enjoy the conversation!  Take notes, and polish them up immediately after the interview before memory fades.

For more on recording the interviews, please see Interviewing Family Part Two – Recording The InterviewDon’t skip this post thinking you won’t need it, because you don’t plan to record the interview. Trust me, at least read the post.

Have you conducted family interviews?  Tell us in the comment section below.

Comments are welcome below.

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