November 21


Preparing For Your Video Interview

Getting Ready     

Are you scheduled for a video interview that will be one of the ingredients used to assemble your family movie or story book? Congratulations! The recorded video and sound may appear directly in your movie or be transcribed into narrative text that might find its way onto the pages of your book. Either way, preparing a little bit will help you enjoy the video interview and feel less nervous.

It's very important to remember that no matter how anxious one might feel being interviewed or being in front of a camera, you are working for the next generation of your family. You are the only one who can do this. Nobody else knows what you know. And besides, your future descendents are going to be forever talking gratefully about you and your family keepsake!


Typically life story family history video interviews range from 90 minutes to 3 or 4 hours. It depends on your energy, the amount of storytelling needed, and the time that is available. Be sure to not overdo it. It's okay to tell the interviewer “I'm starting to feel a little tired. Let's wrap it up.” It's normal to start to feel tired after talking, thinking and storytelling for quite a while. It's okay to save some for the next interview. It's also okay to extend the interview session somewhat if you have extra energy and stories and it also works for the interviewer. Don't waste the moment.

It's wise to schedule your video interview for a time slot that day when you are at your best typically. If you're a morning person, don't agree to an afternoon interview. And vice versa.

Life Story Questionnaire & Family Tree Chart

Prior to most video interviews, the family historian will consult with you about the story matter, characters, and many of the facts that need to be woven into the stories. One of the documents that used to gather some of this is called the Life Story Questionnaire. Your personal historian may have already been filling this out for you or they may have given it to you for you to fill out. Regardless of which way it happens, make sure that the Life Story Questionnaire has been completed about each main character including you before the video interview. The last thing you need is the interviewer asking you dumb questions during that precious interview time.

The Family Tree Chart is a map with blanks that the personal historian will also use to chart out your family members. If you have an online family tree or a paper version be sure to share it with the family historian.

Characters and Stories

Producing an amazing family movie or story book requires focussing on the stories and making sure that they are told and illustrated in a way that is understandable, educational, compelling, and perhaps with occasional bit of drama, romance or humour. In order to be that focussed it's important to narrow down which characters in your family's ancestry you are going to be talking about. You may have documented many hundreds or thousands of your ancestors but there is no practical way of being able to cover them in a reasonable way in your movie or book with one single video interview. So narrow it down to 3 or 4 or 5 people that you might want to talk about during your video interview.

Then think about the stories that go along with those people. If two of those people are you and your spouse, you may not need to do much preparing. Why? Because it's your life. You already know all of the answers to all of the questions that any interviewer might ask you about your own life and theirs too. But if the characters that you're trying to cover in your video interview are your parents, grandparents, or your great-grandparents, you may need to do some narrowing down in order to figure out what to focus on. Take the time to refresh your memory on what you know about them. It might just be as simple as flipping through some photo albums or reviewing your notes about them. If you have a family tree either on paper or online it doesn't hurt to spend a few minutes reviewing those names and relationships.

Storytelling is an art form unto itself and authenticity and genuineness are more important in these kinds of family movies than being an expert storyteller. However, your audience doesn't want to work too hard to understand the story either. It may not be a bad idea to scribble some bullet point notes about the stories that you want to tell. It's not recommended that you try to read word for word off of your piece of paper or script during the interview because that will sound wooden, awkward, and your eyes will never be anywhere near the lens of the camera where your audience is.

But having a few notes to refer to periodically will help you stay relaxed and make the storytelling easier. Remember that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The best stories also have a point or a punch line or a moral. Try to figure out what is interesting about the story and the characters.

When telling a story for the very first time it's quite common to be trying to simultaneously remember, think, formulate sentences, and be charming all at the same time. It can feel quite clunky and awkward. And sometimes we remember salient facts after the story is told. But that's okay because it's a video interview. Later when your recorded video is edited we can move some of the things that you remember later to the very beginning of the recording and to your audience you will sound brilliant! You may hear the interviewer saying, “That was great for a first telling. Let’s tell it a second time.” That’s normal and the story will improve when told again.

The basics of storytelling include the 5 W's and the 1 H. Huh? What? Yes, What is one of the 5 W’s. They are Who, What, Where, When and Why. And the H is How. Storytelling is easier if you focus on the people, the place, and what’s happening. Then add in some When and Why and How.

What Not To Say

In the English language there are about 100 words known as pronouns. They are words that fill in for proper nouns like names and places. Pronouns are it, that, them, those, they, he, him, she and her and a few words.

While these pronouns might make conversations easier they tend to make storytelling more confusing and vague. It’s wise to use the proper names of things and of people more frequently than you normally would. Your storytelling will be more exact and less confusing and perhaps even more interesting.

Don’t say “Like I said before”, “As I mentioned”, and “As you already heard”. Only one instance of what you say on camera is going end up in the finished movie so you audience is only going to hear it once. The “like I said before” isn’t going to make any sense.

Don’t say anything that would be embarrassing or damaging to you or someone else. Pretend your mother is listening. Don’t gossip about others or say things about what you believe they think or feel….unless they told you and it’s essential to the story. Don’t say anything confidential with the camera and recorders running.

Hair and Makeup

You want to make sure when you show up for your video interview that you’ve your hair done and that you've attended to your face. It is suggested that you do your usual daytime routine. if you wear makeup— don't overdo it. And you don't have to look perfect. The reality is that your audience is more likely to be looking into you to see what kind of a human being you are and less at you. Certainly they are not being as critical of you as you might be of yourself! Check yourself in the mirror and make sure that you look like you usually look.


Wear the kind of clothing that you might wear to a business casual event or a Sunday Brunch or at a special event. Be certain that the clothing is comfortable and you feel relaxed wearing it. Just like hair and makeup, our audience is far less judgmental of us than we might be of ourselves so don't overthink your clothing. Be sure there’s no mustard stains, all your zippers are zipped, your buttons buttoned and things are tucked in.

There continues to be a debate about the best colour of clothing for a video interview. We recommend that you wear the color and pattern of clothing that you like the best! The only thing we discourage is small tight patterns that have small stripes or tiny checkers. There is a visual phenomenon in video where sometimes those tiny patterns can appear to be vibrating or buzzing on a video screen. Larger stripes and patterns are fine and solid colors are excellent.

If you’re doing multiple video interviews over time, it is recommended that you wear the same outfit each time. That’s so that if in a later interview you add details that go with some dialogue you recorded at an earlier interview, your clothing won’t be changing every sentence. It’s called “continuity” in movie making. We suggest taking a selfie photo of yourself once your dressed for the first interview. Then refer to that photo when you dress for the next interview. Or ask the interviewer to send you a “screen grab” of your interview so you can remember your wardrobe.

Lastly, during your interviews you'll likely be wearing a wireless lavalier lapel microphone. It has a short wire that's connected to a transmitter pack that could clip on your belt of your trousers or go in a pocket of a jacket or skirt. The transmitter pack can also simply rest on the upholstery beside you but you have to promise not to jump up and run away because the transmitter pack will be dragging behind you!

Set Design

The place where your video interview is going to be filmed is called a set. And it doesn't need to be fancy because for the most part the camera is going to be focussed on you and the small amount of area behind you. It's not going to see the rest of the room. However you're better off in a room that has a minimal amount of furniture and clutter. The interviewer and/or camera person will potentially rearrange the room in order to maximize the use of natural lighting or the camera angles. They’ll put everything back when they're done.

Consider sitting in your favorite chair or couch where you feel most comfortable. Rocking chairs or chairs on wheels are not recommended.

Sound Management

Perhaps even more important than video in a video interview is the sound. Your voice will be recorded along with any noise that's going on in the background so minimizing noise is crucial. It's wise to unplug the telephones temporarily, put cellphones on silent, put a sign on the door bell that says, “Quiet! Recording. Come back later. Thanks!” Be sure to tell other people who may be in the same space to be “Quiet on the set!” It will be so sad if during a beautiful and compelling moment of your movie someone is clattering dishes, coughing, slamming doors, running a hair dryer, or washing machine, or clomping over hardwood floors in high heels. Animals and pets can make a lot of noise and waste or ruin your video interview. Unless they are starring in the scene with you, pets should be kenneled or put outside. It's only for a few hours and they'll be fine.

Breaks and Meals

Your video interview will be broken into several shorter sessions. This will give you a chance to take a breather, attend to your biological needs, and perhaps even consult your notes or photos. There may also be a meal break depending on how long the video interviews are scheduled for. Sometimes there is no meal break but a snack might be nice. The interviewer is conscious to not waste a lot of your precious energy and time with things that can be done some other time - like eating. Don’t plan a formal meal for the middle of your video interview because you’re going to miss out on interview time. But having said that, be certain to attend to small meals and snacks if your health requires it.

Set out a pitcher with some fresh drinking water and some glasses or water bottles.

You may find that having a friend come act as your assistant that day and support you in this process. However, those people need to clearly understand that they are to be invisible and silent. Additional people can add more noise and distraction which will waste your video interview time. It's wise to minimize the number of people who are present during your video interview. It’s not a gameshow so don’t invite an audience.

Groups or Individual Interviews?

In family movie productions a wonderful addition is a group scene where you and your loved ones are gathered around a table or sitting on a couch together. Perhaps you’re look at old photos together or reminiscing. These group interview scenes add a lot of wonderful, happy feelings and imagery. However, group interviews are very difficult to film video and record sound without problems. Not impossible but they do require additional technicalities to handle all of those various verbal audio sources (mouthes) and different camera angles (faces).

The other difficulty with a group interview is that people tend to talk over each other unless they're professional actors. Most of the talking over that happens will likely end up being deleted because it's unintelligible. The interviewer might try to act as a facilitator to give each person who is in the group interview some solo time to share and respond. But talking over each other still happens. For many who want group interviews, it’s simply because they like the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie. For others they have a belief that the other people will help with remembering story details. All of this is true to some degree. But the reality is that having multiple people interviewed simultaneously almost always results in incomplete interviews for most of those people. It’s a trade off.

Interviewing people individually one-on-one is always the preferred approach. Those individual interviews can later be cut together to create magical, interesting, and thorough storytelling.

For many projects a combination of individual interviews and group interviews can create a mix of wonderful shared family movie making and reminiscing as well as thorough storytelling and fact presentation.

Be Proud

Most importantly, take pride in the fact that you are recording your family story and honoring your ancestors in a way that your descendants will actually be able to readily use and be inspired by. This is no small feat and something that ninety-nine percent of people never think to do. So what you are about to do is very special, rare and valuable. Kudos to you.

Feel free to reach out to Heirloom Films and Storybooks in advance if you have questions about your video interview.

About the author

Cory Bretz is a filmmaker and personal historian. He specializes in interviewing elders and helping families inspire their next generation with their life stories, family history, wisdom, blessings, and old photos. He can help you create your own life story family history film or storybook. Cory also loves producing fundraising and profile videos for non-profits and conscious corporations that help them do their good works.


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