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5 Storytelling Tips for Telling Your Ancestor’s Tale

By Vanessa Wieland

Once upon a time… Some people seem born with the ability to weave great tales with nothing more than a few words, while others can capture an entire scene in a single photo or painting. Some of the greatest stories we know come in the form of movies or radio programs. From oral histories and interviews to movies and novels, there is no limit to the ways we can chronicle our family history; it’s just a matter of finding the method of delivery that works best for you.

Think Beyond the Written Word

If your first thought is, “But I can’t write well!” we’ve got great news: Stories don’t have to be written to be shared. There are plenty of ways to tell a great story; get creative with it! If you have lots of old photos, you can turn them into a picture book or slideshow. Even if you don’t have a ton of pictures of your ancestors, you can find plenty online – especially if they involve a big event, such as a world war or major historical event.

For that matter, you can record yourself or a relative telling the story. Want to get really creative and involve the kids? Have them put on a play reenacting the story. Just make sure you have your video camera or smart phone at the ready.

Provide a Historical Backdrop

There are plenty of online collections of old photos and newspaper articles that you can use to add historical context and a colorful backdrop to your ancestor’s life. While some items may still be covered under copyright, if you have an ancestor from WW1 or the Civil War, for example, there are collections that you can use to enhance your story. Check out the Library of Congress to tap into their collections of resources you can use.

Of course, not all of the events have to be big and dramatic. Local or yearly traditions in the community can add context to an event in your ancestor’s life. If your neighborhood has hosted a Fourth of July parade for the past 200 years, are there pictures of old floats in local library archives? Where did your ancestors go to school or work? There are plenty of Facebook groups that are dedicated to old photos of specific cities or regions. Keep in mind, if someone posted it, you’ll want to get their permission to use it, but they might be delighted to accept – and have some information to add to what you already know.

Document an Epic Journey

In addition to photos, maps can add visual interest to your ancestor’s story. Use maps to show the journey your immigrant ancestors took from their homeland. Did they make any stops along the way? Use the David Rumsey Historical Maps Collection to highlight the boundaries and names of places as they were around the time your ancestor lived, and use Google Earth to get street views, map overlays and other tools to add to your visual story.

Use Apps to Create and Edit

You don’t need a fancy video camera to create and edit videos of your ancestors. All you need is a computer or mobile phone with an Internet connection. Use Adobe Spark to create a fun slide show with audio narration, music, and photos to tell a story. They have templates you can use to make it easy. Feel like a video might be too much but you still want to share a great photo? You can also turn an old photo into a fun piece of art for social media and blog posts, even design a webpage. Once you have something you’re happy with, it’s easy to download and share with others online.

Keep it Short and Sweet

A story doesn’t have to be 80,000 words (the average length of a novel). In fact, there are plenty of examples of stories told in as little as 6 words. D. Joshua Taylor of Genealogy Roadshow falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing the 6-minute story in his presentation. You can tell a clean narrative in 6-minutes, plus keep people’s attention from wandering. It also has the added bonus of keeping the story focused, perfect for when you’re crafting a story from a small group of known facts.

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