Give the Gift of Listening

Give the Gift of Listening

Hear the story of a lifetime.

By Patrick Mott

Tell me a story.” It was one of our first articulate requests as children. And when the story unfolded, we always expected to be fascinated, enveloped in a world beyond our own, transported to a different time and place, thoroughly captivated by the uniqueness of it all.

Today leaders of an oral history program want to bring this same sense of wide-eyed intrigue to people of all ages by changing a single word of that childhood request: “Tell me your story.” The organization is called StoryCorps, and it recently launched a campaign that encouraged folks to listen to each other. Not just over coffee or a beer, however; StoryCorps wanted people – family members, friends and others – to sit down deliberately with an audio recorder or video camera and share the stories of their lives.

It started in the U.S. with a National Day of Listening, held Nov. 28, and was expanded from a single day to encompass the entire 2008 holiday season. David Isay, the president and founder of StoryCorps in New York City, New York, estimates that around 30,000 families participated throughout the United States. He calls this “an absolutely phenomenal response.”

The nonprofit organization came up with the idea “about the time the economy began to go south,” says Isay. One person listening to another’s life story, and recording it, “is the least expensive and most meaningful gift we can give each other in these tough economic times,” he notes.

Can Toastmasters give this gift to each other? Why not?

Oral history is a concept that fits quite well with our organization’s goals. Listening is, of course, a much-valued skill for all Toastmasters. So having members of a club split up into pairs, for example, and interview each other for a speech or even a club’s own oral history project, would further hone the ability to listen carefully.

Sharing Life Histories
Toastmasters members bring rich and interesting stories they can tell about their lives. Charles W. Watson, who founded the Chicago South Toastmasters in Chicago, Illinois, says he thinks his fellow members would enjoy doing oral history interviews with each other. “I’m 80 years old – I’ve got a lot of history,” says Watson, who grew up in the American South and witnessed many brutal acts of racism committed against African Americans.

There are no doubt many other Toastmasters around the globe who could be recorded talking about experiences from their past. Perhaps members of clubs in China could reflect on the dramatic social and economic transformation they’ve seen in their country; Toastmasters in Sri Lanka – young and old – could recall how the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 impacted their country; and those in England could share their memories and impressions of the royal family over the years. Maybe some clubs could ask their members to talk specifically about one common, major societal event – in Germany, perhaps that could be the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989; in Australia, perhaps it could be the Olympic Games held in Sydney in 2000.

How would such a Toastmasters project be structured? Each club could tailor it to suit their own needs. The oral histories could be recorded on video camera, audio recorder or whatever devices worked best. Perhaps once these histories were presented to the group, members could then give speeches about what they saw and heard.

An added benefit of sharing life stories in this way is that it would enable fellow Toastmasters to get to know each other even better, increasing feelings of club camaraderie and friendship. 

Learning to Listen
StoryCorps, which was founded in 2003, has also published a book detailing how to conduct oral history interviews; it’s called Listening Is an Act of Love (Penguin Press).

Far from being a difficult or arcane skill set, listening and interviewing family members, friends and others about their lives is something any amateur can easily learn with a bit of preparation and some simple and, usually, inexpensive tools, says Isay. Toastmasters meetings and informal gatherings of members can be ideal opportunities to work on these techniques and exchange personal histories, he says.

Beyond this, however, participation in the gathering of individual oral histories offers deep and lasting rewards, say professional oral historians such as Charles Hardy III, the president of the Oral History Association, an international group of oral historians that was established in 1966.

“Storytelling is at the heart of who we are, the way we understand the world, and has been since time immemorial, whether it’s about epic events or just everyday occurrences,” says Hardy. “And what the tape recorder and now the video recorder allow us to do is capture those living voices and preserve them. And the new digital technologies make it not only affordable but very easy to transcribe them and edit them into polished pieces that are a delight to listen to for many people.”

Beyond making a unique gift for the subject of the interview – indeed, for other family members and friends as well – a recorded story of their life in their own words provides an invaluable link to other times and places and, often, a deeper connection between intimates.

“There is no life story that’s not interesting,” says Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner, the founder of Oral History Productions, a professional oral history organization. “We can often [learn] the biggest lessons from interviews we don’t think, at the outset, will be promising.”

Helping to Heal
And the person sharing their stories can also find the process greatly rewarding, adds Pozzi-Thanner, who has worked as a broadcast journalist and social worker, and who has conducted more than 100 interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

“How rare it is in our times, when everybody is talking constantly, that a person is given the chance to sit in front of a microphone with a deep listener who says, ‘Please share your life story with me,’” she says. “That can have a really healing impact sometimes.”

If there is one absolute iron-clad dictum by which oral historians live and work, it is this: There are no insignificant or ordinary life stories. Hardy tells of an elderly woman from South Philadelphia whom he interviewed once, not expecting to hear what he heard.

“She had worked in the clothing industry, a typical modest elderly woman,” Hardy says. “And it turns out she had come to America from Russia at age 5 and lived through the influenza epidemic of 1918 and lost many family members. I asked how many children were in her family. She said 12. And how big was her apartment? Three rooms, she said. They all slept in the same bed, shared the same hot water for baths once a week, made room for relatives from Russia when they’d come to stay. It turned out to be an extraordinary re-creation of life in a Philadelphia immigrant neighborhood in the first part of the 20th century, absolutely fascinating.”

Such stories often galvanize people – many of them Baby Boomers who have entertained the idea of interviewing their elders – into action.

“I’ve been on a book tour with Listening Is an Act of Love,” notes Isay of StoryCorps, “and I’d say 50 people come up to me each day saying, ‘I wish I would have interviewed my grandfather or my father.’ Part of the lesson of StoryCorps is letting people know that it’s really worth it to do it now. They won’t regret it.”

To learn more about StoryCorps, and to hear people’s stories and get tips on good interview techniques, tools and resources, go to

Patrick Mott is a Southern California-based writer and regular contributor to this magazine.

A Few Tips for Oral History Interviews

  • Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the person you’re going to interview before sitting down with them. Ask yourself: What can I learn from this person? What have they lived through and experienced that’s likely to be of interest?
  • Prepare your questions in advance, but don’t write them down. Become familiar with what you want to ask, but use the questions as guidelines rather than a strict road map. Be willing to let the person you’re interviewing take the story where they want.
  • Choose a quiet environment where you won’t be distracted or disturbed.
  • Listen actively and closely. Don’t concentrate on your next question; concentrate on what the person is saying.
  • Take your time. Let the person tell the story without limits of time or subject. Keep yourself in the background. Don’t be afraid of silences.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Encourage the subject to go into detail. For example, how did a particular person in the story look, dress and speak? How was a room furnished?
  • Avoid leading questions or questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Begin each with who, what, when, where or how.
  • At the end of the interview, ask the person if there is anything they want to add, or if they want to address a subject that didn’t come up during the interview.
  • Make sure your recording equipment is in good shape and batteries are fresh.