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Family History Interviews: The One Big Advantage of a Zoom Holiday Season

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As the final piece in my series on how to have a safe and meaningful holiday season this year, I asked my good friend Debbie Brodsky, to share her expertise with us on how to use Zoom to capture family history interviews. Debbie is an amazing, Emmy award winning filmmaker and producer who has a passion for working with families to capture the stories of loved ones, which she does through her company, DMB Pictures.  Her advice and tips are outstanding and I hope it will inspire you to use this challenging year as a golden opportunity!

For more pieces in this series, check out my posts on cooking for the holidays and  fun and meaningful ways to celebrate the holidays safely this year.

Family History Interviews Holidays

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Family History Interviews: The One Big Advantage of a Zoom Holiday Season

The upcoming holidays present an obvious challenge during the coronavirus pandemic – to gather in-person with family or not. With most people wanting to stay safe, the options are limited, and likely down to one technology we call Zoom.

While this is not the way most of us want to spend the holidays, there is one upside to this year’s socially distanced scenario – the ability to record your loved ones.

My company, DMB Pictures, works with families to capture the stories of their loved ones on video so they will be remembered for generations to come. Every holiday, I lovingly encourage my community to take advantage of the technology they have – whether a video camera or their phone – and spend time interviewing family members on video.

Sadly, most never take me up on this suggestion, and I believe it’s because people see technology as the barrier – that it’s too hard and not worth the effort.

But now with Zoom – most of the technological headache is taken out of the equation. Your family members are already used to being on camera for the past 7+ months – whether for work meetings, book club, or school. So do the next easiest thing – and hit the Record button.

With that said, a few things to consider as you navigate “Zoom Recording” this Thanksgiving.

What’s Your Goal?

Think about what your goal is with recording your Zoom call. Is it to focus on one family member to capture their history? (Grandpa, the elder statesman of the family? Or maybe Grandma & Grandpa together?) Or do you want to record the entire family gathering and get everyone sharing to capture this particular moment in time?

For Personal History Projects

If you want to get into many details and topics for a true life story video, I suggest either having a one-on-one Zoom call if your honoree is more private, or having a group Zoom call, but either have one person ask the questions and others listen, or have a moderator to call on each person taking a turn to ask a question.

If there’s time, it would be ideal to brainstorm and share questions together ahead of time – and then decide who might ask which questions. (It’s also great to involve grandchildren asking the questions.)

Be realistic about how much you can tackle in one session. You may want to focus on just one portion of their life – for example, Growing Up/Childhood or Career. Jumping around to too many different topics in a random order may feel disjointed both for the recording and for the person calling up their memories.

The main topics we like to cover include:

  • Early Childhood/Growing Up Years
  • Remembering Grandparents/Parents
  • College/Military Experience
  • Career
  • Marriage/Meeting their Spouse
  • Becoming Parents/Raising a Family
  • Hobbies & Other Personal Interests
  • Advice/Ideas for the Future

In terms of questions to ask, the most interesting answers generally come from focusing on points of inflection, change or challenge. For an immigrant, it might be arriving to their new chosen country and how that affected them. For an older family member, perhaps how losing a job turned into creating an entirely different career path. Seek out those points of change and what they learned from their challenge.

StoryCorps has great resources for lists of questions – though I always recommend personalizing them for your unique story.

Make sure when asking questions, you stick with How & Why questions or open-ended questions like “Tell me about.” These yield far more interesting results and conversation then “Where did you grow up?” or “What was the name of the school you went to?” which tend to produce one-word answers.

Allow your honoree to talk and leave room in the pauses. Let them think and respond fully before you jump onto the next question. (And unlike sitting together at the dinner table, you can take advantage of having control of everyone’s mute button so the focus stays on your interviewee.)

For Group Conversations

If you want to capture the whole family gathering, you might think about structuring the conversation around a theme or having prepared questions to ask people. Try to allow people to finish their thoughts before jumping in.

Again, use your mute powers. (Zoom isn’t great about letting people talk over one another.)

So maybe the theme is: “What’s one positive thing that happened to you in 2020?” Or “What are you looking forward to getting back to doing when the pandemic is over?” Or maybe it’s something non-2020 related, like, “What’s your favorite Thanksgiving memory?”

Consider giving people an idea of the topics ahead of time, so they’ll have time to think of their answer. 


When should you do a Holiday Zoom Recording? No matter when you do it, I would recommend you not pick a time where you’ll be Zooming and eating together. No one really likes to watch other people chew food – and no one really likes to be recorded eating.

Pick a time either before the festive meal or sometime over the long weekend to gather via Zoom, and make sure people know how much time you’re setting aside so they can plan accordingly.

Keep in mind that if you’re gathering with more than 2 people, you’ll need an account subscription, or your meeting will cut off after 40 minutes.

Technical Tips

Here is my tip sheet for video recording, but some basic pointers are below.

Recording only the honoree

If you are focusing on one person’s personal history and want the recording to be entirely of your honoree’s screen, you must do a few things:

  • Pin their video before recording. (Go into Gallery View and click on “Pin video.”)
  • Whoever is recording the video, put your screen into Speaker View.
  • If you want to make sure you have a clean feed of just your honoree’s audio – make sure your recording settings are checked for “Record a separate audio file for each participant.”

Keep in mind that if you set things up this way, everyone else on the call can still see everyone else on their computers, but the recording will just be of that one pinned person’s video. 

Recording everyone on the call

If you want to see everyone in your recording, simply don’t pin anyone’s video and make sure it’s set to Gallery view. But you may want to mute whoever is not talking for the best audio.

Practice session may help

One final recommendation – if those on your call are new or not comfortable with Zoom, do a practice/set-up session with them so you’re not dealing with technical difficulties on filming day.

I sincerely hope you’ll take advantage of this unique holiday season and capture a legacy memory of your family. I know it’s something you’ll be truly thankful for in the years to come. 

Fun Ways to Make Thanksgiving Meaningful For Everyone

Thursday 18th of November 2021

[…] Family gatherings are also a wonderful opportunity to conduct family history interviews. It is a lovely way to have the generations connect and learn from one another. Learn more about how to do these well here. […]

Fun and Meaningful Ways to Celebrate the Holidays Safely This Year: In Person and Online

Thursday 19th of November 2020

[…] Last week, I shared different ways to make the holiday cooking successful. This week, I am turning my focus to the inter-personal connections that we all crave and miss. So, I have put together a collection of fun and meaningful ways to celebrate the holidays safely, both in person and online. (And make sure to check out our guest post about how to set up family history interviews over Zoom!) […]

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