The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

You’re heading to a family gathering and you can’t wait to tell them all about the genealogy brick-wall problem that you finally solved. They’re going to be so excited!

So you tell everyone who will listen all about the late nights spent searching database after database. The countless trips to the library and the courthouse. The hours spent analyzing documents and resolving inconsistencies. But instead of excitement, you’re answered with:

“Excuse me. I need to go help with the dishes.”

Drinking From a Firehose

If your relatives run when you start to talk about genealogy, you might want to rethink how you're talking about it. When you’re thirsty, you reach for a glass of water or go to a water fountain. You don’t go to a fire hose. The fire hose gives a LOT more water, but it’s too much to take in all at once.

It’s the same when we go overboard with talking about our research and what we’ve found. The person we’re talking to just wants a little knowledge, not the torrent of data that we’ve collected.

They just wanted a drink of water, not the entire fire hose.

Where We Go Wrong When Talking to Non-Genealogists

We genealogists are a passionate bunch. Our research is important to us and we want to share the discoveries about our family with our relatives. After all, it’s their history, too.

But many of our relatives aren’t quite there yet. They might be curious about what we’ve found, but they aren’t interested in the research process like we are.

That’s where we lose them.

When someone asks us, “What have you found in the family tree?” they don’t want a litany of sources, repositories, and analysis. They want the story of the ancestor, not the story of you discovering the ancestor. 

Going through all of the twists and turns and struggles of our research confuses most people who aren’t “into” genealogy research. It’s overwhelming to them.

The Thing to Remember

The first rule of storytelling is “Know your audience.” Consider the person you’re talking to. Are they as “into” genealogy as you are or are they just starting to be curious?

If you’re talking to someone who is curious, keep the emphasis on the ancestor, not your research. If my niece or nephew asks me what I’ve found, I might tell them about a maiden great-great-aunt who went blind late in life and died in the county home. I’m not going to tell them everything I went through to find her, including resolving the fact that her death record had the wrong name.

Yes, we want to be accurate. But we don’t need to overwhelm people.

Ask yourself this: Is it better to

  1. tell that person every single thing you know and everything you went through to find it (and turn them off in the process)  – or –
  2. to tell them a brief story (and keep them interested so they don’t run away the next time they see you)?

My money is on #2.

Keep it short. Keep it simple, Keep them coming back for more. Who knows — maybe those appetizer-size bites you give them will make them want to join you for the full meal.

What strategies have worked for you when talking to the non-genealogists in your family?

1 thing to remember

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14 thoughts on “The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

  1. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — December 26, 2015 | Genealogy à la carte

  2. I tend to tell non-interested family members about the scandals, that usually peaks their interest for a few minutes. Last thing they want to know about is the cabinet maker but as soon as I tell them that he made coffins too you can see them wake up a little.

  3. This has been my experience this year with the 52 Ancestors challenge. My readers (mostly family and friends, but a few strangers) asked if I was going to continue writing family stories because they enjoyed them so much all year. And, of course, I will continue to write family stories in 2016. How can I refuse such a request!

  4. This was a good article and a reminder to avid genealogists, who want to share all our “finds” and how we found them. When talking to individuals, I always start with showing on a tree how they fit, while checking to see if the info is accurate, this works and seems to peak his/her interest.

  5. My family did not want to know anything until I told them we came from an indian princess on one side and British Royalty on the other. Then for the next couple of days I seen them posting I am seriously a princess. Haha Of course we are princesses. We all are!

  6. Right on, guilty, guilty, guilty. When I find out something new, watch out family. I am truly boring, good reminder before Christmas. Keep it short, simple, to the point, if at all.

  7. I think we have all experienced that distancing look ! That is why Genealogical Societies are SO good…everyone has the same passion whether it is in their own research or some elses. Someone to truly share it all with.

  8. Yeah…. this is so me! My family is SOOOOOO disinterested in this genealogy thing! (I love that at least my mother in law and her sisters – all in their 90s – are into it…because I am talking about their papa, nonna, cousins etc and get such good info from their sharp memories too, lucky me)…. but the rest of the family could not be bothered!
    The only fleeting moments of success I’ve had in catching their interest is letting my Boston hockey-obsessed family know about contemporary hockey related connections — not only are we related on my mom’s side to a Bruins sports commentator and former player (Andy Brickley) but also cousin to an NHL coach, (John Tortorella) on my husbands side. THAT got their attention…. for about 10 seconds! (…and this is why I need you genealogy friends!) :-)

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