Cold-Calling Your Kin: How to Contact Distant Relatives

Need to contact distant relatives? Got cold feet? Follow these steps and you’ll warm right up–and hopefully, so will those you contact!

Cold Calling

Today, online trees, social media, and email make it easier than ever to find relatives you don’t know well (or at all). And there are SO many reasons to contact them: to collaborate on research, swap photos or stories, or even request a DNA sample.

In these cases, you may need to make what salespeople refer to as a “cold call,” or an unexpected contact to someone you don’t know. I’ve done it successfully many times myself, so I can tell you this: it does get easier. Follow these steps to make it a smoother experience.

1. Identify the person you want to call.
Common ways to identify a new relative include:

  • Another relative tells you about them
  • Family artifact, such as an old greeting card, address book, captioned photograph, letter, etc.
  • On a genealogy message board
  • In an online family tree (with enough information showing to identify them)
  • As the author of a book, article, or blog post with information about your family

2. Locate the person’s phone number, address, and/or email address. 

cold calling step 2 Google SearchHere are some great websites for locating people you don’t know, or at least learning more about them (as you can on LinkedIn):

TIP: When looking through a geographically-based directory, don’t forget to search the entire metro area, not just one city. Try just searching their first name, particularly if it’s not a really common first name. Try and track down their number through other relatives or researchers.

3. Prepare ahead for making the call.
Every tough job gets just a little easier when you do your homework first!

  • Take into account a possible difference in time zones.
  • Choose a time when you are not too rushed
  • Set yourself up in a quiet place, where there will be minimal background noise or disruptions
  • Do a brief review of the family you are researching so it’s fresh in your mind
  • Make note of specific questions you would like to ask.
  • Have your genealogy software program open or your written notes at your fingertips

4. Adopt a positive mindset.
It’s natural to feel some apprehension when calling someone you don’t know. Before you pick up the phone, give yourself a little pep talk. Remind yourself how valuable this person’s information could be to your research. If he or she is quite elderly, remember that none of us will be around here forever so you need to make the call today! Say to yourself, “I can do this. This is important!” Be positive and remember, all they can do is say, “No thank you.”

5. Introduce yourself.
Give your first and last name and tell them the town and state where you live. Then tell them the family connection that you share. Tell them who referred them to you or how you located them. Cover these basics before launching into why you’re calling or what you want.

6. Overcome reluctant relatives.
Be ready to share what you’ve learned, and to share your own memories of a relative that you have in common. Mention something of particular interest in the family tree that might pique their interest. If they are very hesitant or caught off-guard, offer to mail them information and call back once they’ve had a chance to look at it. That way they can get their bearings, too.

do this during the call - Note taking7. Do these things during the call:

  • Take notes: try a headset or use speakerphone, which will help to free up your hands for writing.
  • Ask for new information and confirm what you already have.

If you have a way to record the call, then you won’t have to take notes and you can focus all your attention on the conversation. You can then transcribe the recording later. However, in some places, it’s illegal to record a conversation without telling them first and/or getting a person’s permission (not to mention discourteous). It can be very off-putting to start the first call by asking if you can record them. So, establish a connection first, make your request to record, and then press the record button.

Read more: How to Record a Conversation on your Smartphone or Skype

8. Leave a detailed voice mail message if there’s no answer.
State your name clearly, and that you would like to talk with them about the family history. Leave your phone number and tell them that you will call them back. Consider leaving your email address and suggesting they email you with a convenient time to call back. These days many people are more comfortable with email for the first contact.

9. Ask questions like these:

  • “Do you or anyone else in the family have any old family photographs or a family Bible that I could arrange to get copies of? (Reassure them that you are happy to pay for copies and shipping.)
  • “Do you know anyone else in the family who has been doing family research?”
  • “May I have your permission to cite you as a source in print in the future?”
  • “Is it OK with you if I keep in touch from time to time? What is your preferred method of contact?”

10. Wrap up the call.
Offer to give them your address, phone number, and email address. Ask for their mailing address and email address. Repeat or state your desire to share information you have, and tell them how you’ll send it. Let them know you would be pleased to hear from them if they come across any other information, pictures, etc.

 11. Document the call.
Keep track in your genealogy database of each time you call someone and the outcome (“left a message” or summary of conversation). Having a log of calls and voice mail messages you’ve left will help you know when it’s time to follow-up with whom—and who wasn’t so interested in chatting again.

After a conversation, sit down at the computer or your notepad right away and make detailed notes about the phone conversation while it’s fresh in your mind. Include the person’s name, address, phone number, and date of the conversation. Make notes regarding any items you think may be questionable to remind you to go back and do more research on those points. Enter their contact information into your genealogy database as well as your email contact list.

12. Enter new information into your genealogy database. 

This is a must. Do it right away while it’s on your mind. Cite the conversation as the source of the information.

Remember to respect the privacy of those who prefer to remain “off-the-record” by not naming them in sources you post on public online trees.

13. Create an action item list.
Create action items based on what you learned.  Ask yourself “What are the logical next steps to take considering what you’ve learned through this interview?” The call is not the end goal. It’s a step in the research process, and it can really help to make this list now, and while it’s fresh in your mind.

Cold Calling:
“The call is not the end goal.”

Lisa Louise Cooke

14. Follow up.
Send the person a written thank-you note or email. Remind them of your willingness to share your information, and acknowledge any willingness they expressed to share theirs (restate your willingness to help with copying expenses, postage etc. and consider including a few dollars). You never know: they might catch the genealogy bug and become your new research partner!

Next, put their birthday on your calendar and send them a card on their next birthday. Try this service: Birthday Alarm. If you don’t know their birthday but do have an address or email, send a greeting card for the next major holiday or on your shared ancestor’s anniversary or birth date. It’s another way of keeping the connection alive and expressing that you really do appreciate their help.

Occasionally make a follow-up call. See how they are doing, share any new family items you’ve come across recently, and ask whether they have they heard or found anything else.

Resource: Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn strategies for finding living relatives with their exclusive access to my video class, “Unleash your Inner Private Eye to Find Living Relatives.” Class includes:

  • a handout summarizing 9 strategies and resources
  • a resource guide for online public records (U.S.)
  • a downloadable Living Relatives worksheet you can print (or open in Word) that will help you capture and organize what you learn about them

Click here to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium website membership.

Gems Share Their Creative Solutions to Interviewing and Capturing Memories

Is lack of time or lack of cooperation getting in the way of you capturing memories? Your descendants are depending on you to pass down the family’s history. Genealogy Gems readers and listeners share their creative solutions to the age old challenge of capturing the future’s history today!

interviewing solutions capturing memories creatively
Recently I wrote a post called Remembering Dad with a Family History Interview Video. In that post I shared the video I made of my husband Bill’s interview about his father. I’ve been delighted to hear from so many of you Genealogy Gems readers about your own interview strategies for gleaning stories and memories from loved ones.
Sharon C. wrote to explain her creative approach to interviewing her mom:

As my mother grew older (she lived to be almost 94), her vision got very bad. So, I bought her a large screen T.V. Then, I attached my video camera to the T.V. and a microphone to her from my camera, and we went through her old photo albums, with my camera on the photos, but the photos projected to her on the large screen T.V. We then talked about the photos and I asked her questions about the people, but she saw the picture on her T.V. Her narrative and the pictures were recorded on my video. Voila!!! her pictures, her voice, her details, on the camera and she didn’t even realize that it was being recorded. She thought she was just discussing the pictures from the album. At one point, her two brothers were present and I was able to get their input as well, at the same time.

Patricia D. shares how she captures her husband’s stories without having to find time to do it in their busy schedule:

Pages app on ipad for interviewingLisa, I enjoyed your article about trying to interview your husband, who is shy about being interviewed. My husband and I found a painless way to do an interview. When we are traveling he gets sleepy if no one is talking to him, so I decided interviewing him in an informal way about events in his life would serve two purposes. He wouldn’t get sleepy, and I would get information about his life story.

I take my iPad when we’re traveling and as I ask him questions I type his responses into Pages (app). Usually one question leads to another, so we seldom run out of information. He enjoys reminiscing about the past, and I enjoy hearing it, since he seldom mentions it without being prodded.

When we get home I polish up what I have written and transfer it to my computer. I store it in a folder labeled ‘Don’s life.’ Eventually we will have enough to write the story of his life, with lots of pictures. And it’s completely painless.

This is a wonderful, creative way to capture stories and spend time with family!
Curt S. is not only capturing his stories for his family, but he’s also brightening the lives of others:

Hi Lisa, I love the story about a lady interviewing her husband while driving to keep him awake and to share his life stories. I too came up with a neat way to share my life story. Every year at Christmas time when my family gathers together I seem to always be asked to tell one of my stories, as I have a lot of stories, mostly very funny stories. Even at my former work my boss and co-workers would ask me to tell certain stories again.

So, it dawned on me that I needed to find a way to tell these stories so that I could leave a legacy to my kids and their descendants. We are always suggesting to others that they interview their living ancestors while they have the chance. So why not tell your own story.

To motivate myself to tell my stories, I created a blog, in which I tell one of my stories approx, once every other week. Then after I publish the blog story, I copy and paste into my Legacy 9 software, into the story feature, which then puts the story in chronological order that later can be published in a book format.

So here is the address to my blog. If you go there you will see the kind of stories I am telling. I have identified over two years worth of stories so far that I can share on my blog.

Brighten your day by checking out this Gem’s blog: http://curtscrazytales.org/

When it comes to family history, there is definitely an element of methodology – but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be creativity! Everyone’s family is different, and what works for some may not work for others. So don’t be afraid to put your own spin on research ideas, and customize them to work for you. Thank you to everyone who submitted their strategies, and I hope you’ve got at least one new idea to try out!


Double Dip Savings on this Resource through 7/5/17

The Story of My Life workbook, written by our very own Sunny Morton, makes it easy to record your memories, and the memories of your loved ones. Simply follow the prompts to preserve memories from your entire life.

Currently on sale at 50% off (for just $9.99 through 7/5/17), PLUS get an additional 10% off with coupon code GEMS17!

What to Ask: African-American Family History Interview Tips

Learning about your African-American family history starts with asking questions, which can sometimes be challenging. Expert Angela Walton-Raji shares tips on talking to your relatives to uncover your family’s stories and heritage. 

All of our relatives have unique stories. Like these young ladies at a Naval Air Station spring formal dance in Seattle, Washington, in 1944. (Click on the picture to learn more about it.)

Many African-American families share particular types of memories and experiences–for better or for worse–from having lived in the United States. Recently genealogy expert Angela Walton-Raji joined Lisa Louise Cooke on the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 201 to share tips about researching these stories.

She especially talked about the importance of interviewing elders, and shared several questions she suggested asking. These will help you learn more about your relative’s own life and other family experiences with the Civil Rights movement, migration, and military service. These questions also delve deeper into passed-down family memories that may help you trace your family history back to the era of slavery.

What to ask in African-American oral history interviews

1. Do you know of anyone in the family who was born a slave? (If old enough: as a child, did you know anyone personally who was born a slave?)

2. Who was the oldest person that you remember when you were a child? And did that person ever talk about anyone who may have been enslaved?

3. What do you know about where the family was from? (Were we always from Georgia, or was there a time when we came from another place? Why did we move? Who remembers that journey?) These questions may help you trace your family during the Great Migration.

4. Were you (or other relatives) involved in the Civil Rights movement, in the Garvey era, with the Freedom Riders, or other important events in your lifetime? What kinds of things did you see?

5. Who in the family participated in the military (in World War II, World War I, or the Spanish-American War)? FYI: African-American military units through the mid-20th century were still referred to as Buffalo soldiers. (In the interview, Angela mentioned the Triple Nickel, a unit of all-black World War II paratroopers.

“If you just drop a couple of key words you might jar their memory and get an amazing narrative to come out.” -Angela Walton-Raji

Ready to learn more about tracing African-American ancestry? Angela Walton-Raji instructs the African-American Genealogy Research Essentials downloadable video class. Purchase it with this link and use coupon code GEMS17 for 10% off, valid through 12/31/17.

More African American Genealogy Gems

A Slave Birth Record is among the Touching Heirlooms in This Exhibit

The Colored Farmer’s Alliance: Learning the History Behind their Stories

Finding Your Free People of Color

Is that Memory Real? Understanding Relatives with Dementia and Memory Loss

dementia understanding memories

“Old Memories,” by H. Bullock Webster, 1881, via Wikimedia Commons.

When a loved one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s, it can be difficult to gather their memories–or to understand how “real” the memories are. Lisa gathered some great advice from an expert!

Many of us have (or will have) loved ones who Alzheimer’s or dementia and memory loss. When they start to become memory-impaired, can we still gather and preserve any of their memories?

Lisa Louise Cooke posed this question in a special interview with Kathy Hawkins, a therapist and Master Trainer with Timeslips Creative Storytelling. Kathy explains that it depends on how advanced their condition is. Meanwhile, we can definitely do some things to improve the experience of asking memory-impaired loved ones about the past. For example:

  • When asking questions about the past, don’t use the phrase, “Do you remember?”Ask instead questions like “who, what, where,”….etc. People may shut down when they feel like they’re being given a memory test. So don’t put that kind of pressure on them.
  • Your tone of voice and overall approach are so important. Don’t be sing-songy or condescending. Treat them like an adult.
  • The emotional integrity of someone’s story is still often intact, even with memory-impairment. Meaning, the emotion attached to a memory or a person will likely be real. But the chronology or details may get confused with other similar events that were also true. Whenever possible, verify facts (especially dates) with other sources.
  • Don’t make every conversation (or even most of them) about what they remember (or don’t). Be interested in who they are now: their thoughts and creativity.

Kathy Hawkins head shotYou can listen to Lisa’s entire interview with Kathy Hawkins in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 186. Kathy also shared some information about the organization she works with, Timeslips Creative Storytelling. Click here to see a pdf with some creative storytelling and arts materials created by TimeSlips.

More Family Memories Tips from Genealogy Gems

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Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton, Contributing Editor. Her voice is often heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast. She’s known for her expertise on the world’s biggest family history websites (she’s the author of Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites); writing personal and family histories (Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy); and sharing her latest favorite reads for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

Use Skype Translator to Speak Another Language

Skype translateDo you use Skype or another video chat service to keep in touch with loved ones? Have you considered using it for long-distance oral history interviews or collaborating on your genealogy with a faraway cousin? Language barriers can sometimes become a problem. Skype Translator offers a solution!

Last December, online communications giant Skype announced the debut of Skype Translator. The service launched with two spoken languages, English and Spanish, and more than 40 instant messaging languages. Customers could access it who signed-up via the Skype Translator sign-up page and were using Windows 8.1 on a desktop or device.

The Skype blog has proudly announced that they’ve added Italian and Mandarin to the list of spoken languages in Skype Translator. “As you can imagine, Mandarin is a very challenging language to learn, even for Skype Translator. With approximately 10,000 characters and multiple tones, this is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to master.” The list of instant messaging languages has also expanded.

The post acknowledges years of hard work and testing required for the Mandarin application by Microsoft researchers and scientists in the U.S. and China. “Skype Translator relies on machine learning, which means that the more the technology is used, the smarter it gets,” stated the initial release. “As more people use the Skype Translator preview with these languages, the quality will continually improve.” Here’s a video demonstrating Mandarin translation:

“The focus of our updates in this preview release is to streamline interactions between participants, so you can have a more natural conversation using Skype Translator,” states the recent Skype release. They describe these key updates:

  • Text to speech translation:
    • You now have the option to hear the instant messages people send to you – in the language of your choice
    • Continuous recognition – Recognized text translation as your partner is speaking
  • Automatic volume control:
    • Your partner can speak while the translation is still happening. You will hear the translation at full volume, and your partner at a lower volume, so that you can follow the translation, which will help make conversations more fluid.
  • Mute option for translated voice:
    • There is now an option to easily turn the translated audio on or off if you would prefer to only read the transcript.

stick_figure_ride_mouse_400_wht_9283Want to learn more about using video chat services like Skype for family history? Click here to read tips about collaborating with other family history researchers via Skype. We’ve blogged about how to use third-party apps to record Skype conversations (click here to learn how). Our free Family History Made Easy podcast features an episode on interviewing skills (episode 2) and a 2-part series on how to contact long-lost relatives (“genealogy cold-calls,” episodes 14 and 15).

Record a Life Story: Free StoryCorps App

StoryCorps boothRecently a friend sent me a link to a TED talk by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. As a radio broadcast journalist, Dave has spent his life capturing other people’s stories. The profound impact this had on him led him to found StoryCorps, which collects and archives interviews with everyday people.

“Every life matters equally and infinitely,” Dave learned, something we discover as family historians, too. He talks about how inviting someone to talk about his or her life “may just turn out to be one of the most important moments in that person’s life, and in yours.” This is something I try to explain to people about family history interviews: asking respectful questions and listening just as respectfully is a gift we can give our relatives when we interview them.

StoryCorps started with a little recording booth in Grand Central Terminal, one of the busiest places in the world to hold these intimate conversations. Two people share a conversation, one interviewing and the other being interviewed, and a facilitator helps them record the conversation and leave with a copy of it. Another copy goes to the Library of Congress.

In our own ways, we do this when we record loved ones’ life stories. We honor their feelings, experiences and opinions by asking about them and preserving them. Sometimes we share personal moments of understanding, forgiveness or revelation. In my experience, it’s similar to what unfolds in the StoryCorps booths: “Amazing conversations happen.”

In Dave’s TED talk, he shares snippets of some of those amazing conversations, like A 12-year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome interviewing his mother, and a husband sharing his love for his wife: “Being married is like having a color television set. You never want to go back to black and white.”

Storycorp appStoryCorps now has an app that helps people capture conversations like these. A digital facilitator walks you through the interview process, the app records the conversation, and then you can save and share the resulting audio file. Why not record an interview in honor of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day this spring with the StoryCorp app? Or have a meaningful conversation with an aunt or uncle, sibling, cousin or your child or grandchild.

Genealogy Gems Premium Membership and PodcastGenealogy Gems Premium members can learn more about preserving the stories of your own life in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 116, in which I interview Laura Hedgecock, author of Memories of Me.

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