The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

Imagine that 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."

The 1 Thing to Remember When Talking to Non-Genealogists

Drinking From a Firehose

When you're thirsty, you reach for a glass of water or go to a water fountain. You don't go to a firehose. The firehose 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 (or entertainment), not the torrent of data that we've collected. 

They just wanted a drink of water, not the whole firehose. 

Where We Go Wrong When Talking With Non-Genealogists

We genealogists are a passionate bunch. Our research is important to us and we want to share our discoveries 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 become curious? 

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

Yes, we want to be accurate, but we don't want 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. Tell them a brief story (and keep them interested so they don't go running 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-sized bites that you give them will make them want the full meal. 

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

Posted: December 23, 2015.

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  • People prefer to hear about THEMSELVES, so I try to approach the subject in a way it relates to their life as well as the life of that long ago ancestor. And of course they really want to know the scandalous bits. 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!) 🙂

  • I plead quilty, quilty, very quile. Now to find a way to send mysely this post Chistmas eve. I must remember they only love the pictures.

  • Keeping it simple is so important. A good story about a recent ancestor or sometimes a tie in to something the grandchildren are studying in school have been my best successes, judging from eye to eye contact. When my granddaughters learned that their ancestors fought in whatever war they were studying, it clicked. And when my granddaughter played Mary Brewster in a Thanksgiving play and I told her that was her ancestor, she was so impressed she told her teacher the next day. Score!