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How to Work With Your Family to Tell Their Story: Part 1 of 3

Have you been thinking about working with your mom or grandmother to start getting her story written down? Maybe you have already tried, but it didn’t quite go as planned.  

I completely understand not knowing how to start and the way life derails even the best-laid plans. That’s why I’ve created the Legacy Recorder. Regardless of where you are in the storytelling process (or in life), you can come here anytime and pick up where you left off. My goal is to help you figure out how to get started and complete the project.

There are three things you need to decide on and explore before you ever start writing down a single word. If you have already started writing, put down your pen, take a step back and start reading. I've put together a three-part series that will give you the basis you need to complete the project of a lifetime.

This series will outline what you need to think about in regards to

  1. Who is the storyteller & what will the story be about
  2. Who will you work with
  3. What are the overall project goals

This is part one of the series and covers what will the story be about and who is the storyteller.

You can read Part Two Here.

You can read Part Three Here

Who is the Storyteller & What Will the Story be About

The first steps are deciding who will be the storyteller and what the story will be about. Making this decision may be difficult or really easy. Don’t be afraid to call on family members if you can’t decide.

For each family, this choice is highly personal and is different for each life situation. I'm going to give you three examples of situations you may find yourself in and how to make story decisions based on that situation. Those potential situations are when you have a storyteller and interviewer, a hospice situation, and a memory collection instance.

Storyteller & Interviewer

The first example is a pair of people working together to tell a story. Let's say you're working with your mom or your grandmother. Together you and your storyteller decide what the story will be about. I recommend that the storyteller drives the conversation. Ask them

  • what they want to talk about,
  • what they want the story to be about,
  • Which memories they want people to know about,

and giving them the opportunity to make those creative decisions. It isn't about us as the people who are interviewing and helping record and what we want to know. It's about the storyteller and their experience. If we are always honoring that person and coming from a place of service, then we will get what we need out of the project even if we don't feel like we're in control.

From a storyteller perspective, they might not have the memories from childhood and they might not want to talk about things from their past. Providing them with options of what to talk about will help keep the conversation going. These are all things you can find on the Legacy website.

Possible options

  • Sweeping epic of their entire life
  • Picking a moment in time in a memoir style
  • Picking one general topic like food & discuss memories revolving around it

Those are just a few examples of what the story could be about. The common theme is that the story is about the storyteller and their memories in their life. You, as the interviewer, are there to help them record the memories.


Hospice Situation

all aloneIf you are in a situation where you're working with someone who is in hospice or in the end of life stages, you don't have time to plan or being wishy-washy on how things will go. It is paramount that you keep the loved one top of mind.

As a family, I would recommend that you sit down, have a discussion and, if you can, include the storyteller or the person that you want to write about and find out what is most important to them. Find out the Legacy they want to leave and, find out what they want people to remember about them.

From there the project takes shape based on what your loved one wants, not what the family thinks should happen. This opens a different conversation and gives way to different topics. The family might say things like

  • “Well, we're going to talk about her childhood,” or,
  • “We're going to talk about his time in the army,” or,
  • “His time in the military is the most important,”

These are all easy go-tos, but they might not be what your storyteller wants to you to spend time on.

In this situation, it's important to include the storyteller at every juncture as much as possible. Encourage them (if they are able) to help decide things like

  • who is contributing to the story,
  • what the story will be about and
  • what they want people to spend time remembering

Remember it might not be what you or the family think it should be. In a hospice situation, I would strive to honor that person's wishes on what they want to talk about to make the most of the time you do have available.


Memory Collections

memorabilia - photosThe last example is storytelling from a whole family standpoint. In this approach, everyone is able to contribute to the storytelling process whether they live nearby or abroad. It can be completed in person, over the phone, or completely online depending on what everyone is comfortable with.

Reasons to take the Memory Collection approach

  • Celebrating a major milestone like a 70th birthday or 50th Wedding Anniversary
  • Commemorating a Family Event or Reunion
  • Remembering a loved one who has passed away

Using the major milestone example, those are really great opportunities to have everyone contribute something that they remember about the couple, something they remember about the person who's turning 60, and then compile that into a book or something, a slide show.

A lot of people are doing this already, but we don't always ask more than one or two questions or we send one thing out. You might get an email that says “Oh, well, just send us something,”. There often isn’t guidance around it, no specific questions.

In my work, I have found that when we ask specific, intentional questions, it completely changes the way people are able to answer. We take the guesswork out of how we want the conversation to go, how we want the story to go.

It also gives the person who's answering the questions an opportunity to think intentionally about what they're writing. They are able to frame and write a meaningful story they are proud to contribute out without too much trouble. Once the responses are received you are then able to compile them into whatever medium the family has decided to use.

If you have any questions on how those work, I would love to chat with you.



Those are my three examples of different situations you may find yourself in and how to handle getting started on writing the stories. They were an interviewer and the storyteller, a hospice situation and a full-family affair as memory collections.

So that is how I would start working with your family to tell your family story. I highly encourage you to talk with someone else in your family. Go to someone in your family who you know might be interested in doing this with you and find out what their interests are, what their thoughts are about it, and find out if it's something that you guys can do together for your family and loved one.

If you’d like a more in depth dive into this storytelling with someone you love journey, click here.


  1. […] When I’ve worked on memory collections, I send out a survey so that everyone is able to share their stories and submit pictures. Those memories then can all be compiled into a book. If you have questions about remembering those we’ve lost or want to discuss project ideas, feel free to email me or Facebook message the page. If you are in more of a Hospice situation, I have that information here. […]

  2. […] All of these things will shape and inform what the intergenerational projects look like for your community, for your facility, and for your family. […]

  3. […] later. This relationship-building takes time and shouldn't be rushed whenever possible. If you are working with a grandparent, parent, or someone else you love, you may be able to skip some of these but I still encourage you to start with the favorites and […]

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