Nov 072013
Oral History Traditions start with Gramps

Grandpa’s got stories. Have you heard them all?

I’m excited to present a guest post by Tami Koenig, aka Your Story Coach. Today she gives us tips on starting an oral history tradition during your next family gathering. 

Start an Oral History Tradition during Holidays

Traditions have to start somewhere. Maybe it’s time to start your own family tradition of “listening.” Why not set aside an hour or two every Thanksgiving, Christmas or Memorial Day—whenever your whole family gathers together—to record the stories of your senior family members?

I remember my own grandparents sitting in my parents’ living room as we all relaxed after a huge celebratory dinner. It was a warm scene with family in high spirits—with my grandparents at the center of it all—and the stories would naturally start to flow.

Sometimes our older family members get lost in the bustle of holidays. Instead, take this chance to validate their lives and experiences.

Here are a few tips to get your own oral history tradition started:

Plan ahead.

Let Grandpa or Aunt Betty know your plans ahead of time. You may even prepare a few questions or topics you’d like them to focus on. And don’t be afraid to ask them what they’d like to talk about. Chances are, they’ve just been waiting for someone to ask them about their lives and they’ve got stories they’d love to share.

Tell the whole family your plan.

It’s good to prepare younger kids ahead of time. Let them know there will be a story time and that you’ll want them to listen quietly. Remind them that this is Grandpa’s time to talk. Better yet, ask them what kind of questions they’d like to ask their older family members. Let all family members know you’ll be setting aside an hour or so to listen to a few senior stories.

Oral History Traditions start with photos

Oral history traditions can be sparked from photo books.

Gather photos or heirlooms.

It’s always good to have “story sparks” on hand. A photo or family heirloom could be the key to bringing out long-forgotten memories. Collect anything that might trigger memories: newspaper clippings, letters, songs, or items handed down from earlier generations.

Prepare your equipment.

You’ll want to capture these precious stories and preserve this oral history tradition, so make sure your recording equipment is fully charged and working properly. You can set your video camera on a tripod to capture the whole scene or focus directly on the storyteller. Or you may choose to have different family members record in several ways: one person recording audio on an iPhone, another shooting video, while another records the occasion with snapshots.

Keep it short.

Older people can tire quickly and recalling memories can be emotionally exhausting for some people. Keep the storytelling session to an hour or two at most. Make sure they are sitting comfortably and don’t have to compete with a lot of other noise.

Give thanks.

After the session, take time to thank the storytellers for sharing their stories. Once the cameras and recorders are off, take a moment to celebrate this new family tradition.

Tami Koenig starting an oral history tradition

No pencils required: Tami Koenig gives tips on starting an oral history tradition.

Tami Koenig is Your Story Coach. Her website offers resources, tools and tips to help you preserve memories and share stories. She believes writing stories from your life should be fun and easy.  Like me, she also believes that families would rather have some stories from you, even if they’re not perfect, rather than having no stories at all.

If you’re looking for story inspiration, Tami writes weekly blog posts and monthly writing exercises called “Story Sparks” on her website at  You can also follow Your Story Coach on Twitter @YourStoryCoach, on Facebook and on Pinterest.

  5 Responses to “How to Start an Oral History Tradition”

  1. Tami and Laura, I love this idea. I’ve already been collecting stories from my own family, but I spend the holidays with my in-laws and have been wanting to record some of my mother-in-law’s stories. She’ll start telling stories over holiday dinners, and it feels weird to suddenly whip out my digital recorder when she launches in to a story without having discussed it in advance. I’ve also considered setting up one-on-one time with her to record her stories, but I never seem to prioritize that. The missing piece that you’ve provided here (which seems so obvious now!) is to set aside a special time during the holiday gathering and have the whole family join in on the questioning. I’m going to suggest we do this during our Thanksgiving visit.

    • Got to give Tami credit for that one Sue. I have the same issue. At big dinners my father-in-law starts telling stories. I don’t want to interrupt the flow with taking notes, etc. I’m thinking that special time could include coffee and dessert.

      Thanks for stopping in. I’m looking forward to checking out your site.

  2. Helpful information! Planning ahead is a good idea…

    • Good point, Anita. You’re right. When you just decide to spring it on folks, you could have some nay-sayers or reluctance.
      Thanks for stopping in.

  3. I love this idea and thank you so much for sharing, Tami and Laura. I was literally just thinking about this over the weekend while I was visiting my family on a day trip. We all gathered around the kitchen table for lunch; four generations. I watched as my grandmother just listened to my mother, sisters and niece speak and tell stories. Patiently, as she tried to get a few words in, she was cut off time and time again. Not purposely, but because often times, we as children are filled with topics of conversation and just want to be heard. I’m glad I read this post this morning because it reminded me to call my mother and tell her we should let our grandmother speak more and listen to her stories. I’m sure she has some really good ones!

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