Ancestor Search:
Enter as much information as you know about your ancestor and click search:

  First Name: Last Name: Location:   

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 5/4/2005

Cold Calling

There is a reason I do not work telephone sales. I dislike calling people I do not know on the phone, and I absolutely hate asking someone to buy something. The problem was that my distaste for making such calls was hindering my genealogical research. I remembered a friend who had smoked for years and quit only because when she made that trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake she did not want to leave the building for anything, even a smoke. And so she gave up smoking. I decided if she could give up smoking for genealogy, I could let go of my fear of making a cold call.

It really was not a true "cold call." I knew who the relative was that I wanted to phone, but she did not know me. And while I was not asking her to buy something, I was asking for something--information. I decided to bite the bullet.

There are times when the only way to obtain family history information is via a phone call. The relative may not have e-mail or may not be able to respond to a written request. If the relative is willing to talk, that conversation has to take place in person or via telephone. There is no way around it. Your family history and the extension of your pedigree may depend upon it.

Salesmen are prepared before they call. You should be too. An unprepared genealogist can easily overlook good questions and miss opportunities to obtain information. Listening to the answers is just as important as writing them down. Interviews via phone are done to tap information from a human mind. Life happens. You may not have the chance to interview the person again.

What I Did
The following things were helpful to me before I made my call. Some helped to prepare me for the conversation and others simply calmed my nerves. Being organized and relaxed goes a long way to making the person on the other end of the phone feel that way as well. And that helps get answers to your questions.

Review the Family. While I had worked on this family for years and knew most of the information by heart, it helped to have names, relationships, and dates conveniently nearby while on the phone. I knew that the person I was calling would be more willing to talk with me if I could share what I knew of the family, including names of family members, approximate dates of birth and death, and places where the family had lived. Reciting a complete genealogy to my interviewee was too much, but knowing the local geography of where our family lived was a big help and made establishing my credibility easier. (Of course, one should be familiar with the geography of the places where your ancestors lived--whether you make phone calls or not.) Making my relationship to the family and to the person on the other end of the phone was necessary to establish a connection. These details also helped to jog my phone contact's memory in addition to establishing the fact that I was not running some type of con. Having the information close by in a convenient form also seemed to help me relax.

Have Questions. A list of questions is a must. Deviating from the set questions as the conversation progresses is fine when answers require additional follow-up. But calling without any idea of what specific questions you are going to ask is a great way to leave something out. My list of questions was fairly short, but I reminded myself that actually listening to the answers and thinking about them was equally important.

Be Able to Take Notes. Paper and pencil work well for me. Taking notes via a computer works for some, but I find it distracting. Also when taking notes, I occasionally wanted to draw lines to make connections between two individuals or to block off certain pieces of information, squeeze in notes, etc. Take notes in the medium that works best for you (you are not taking notes to impress, but rather to accurately record). If you are using equipment other than pencil and paper, make certain you have adequate power and "save" your information regularly as you take notes.

Try and Jog the Memory. Jogging a person's memory is fine. Dragging it down your already concluded path is not. However being too vague is not helpful either. I almost learned this the hard way.

There was one relative whose spouse is a particular enigma (the one that if I win the lottery I'm going to hire a slew of genealogists to work on non-stop!). My phone contact descended from the ancestor's second spouse, while I descended from the first (I'm convinced her maiden name was Brickwall!). I was hoping my phone contact had heard stories about the first wife that had not been passed down in my family. I asked my phone contact about this relative's wife and used that word "wife." The voice on the other end of the phone indicated she had never heard anything about that wife and that no one had ever spoken of her. Nothing. Drat.

Our conversation moved on to another topic and in the context of a later question I happened to mention the wife using her first name. Suddenly the memories started to flow and details were quickly written down on my notepad. My attempt to ferret out a possible alternate name for the first wife had almost cost me all the information my interviewee knew.

Things to Ask. There are many things to ask. Most will revolve around your specific family and the problems or situations you are trying to figure out.

I always ask these questions regardless of the person:

  • Do they know anyone who might have pictures, family memorabilia, or a family Bible?
  • Do they know anyone who has done work on the family history?

Of course, there are more questions. Those interested in more questions to ask may wish to read an earlier "Beyond the Index" column "Interviewing Grandma."

Is It Worth It?
Yes, interviews may provide information you may not be able to get elsewhere, and a phone may be the only way to contact your interviewee. Of course, face-to-face interviews are preferable, but sometimes choices must be made and one cannot always fly across the country to conduct an interview when there is no expense account to tap.

Those genealogists who love to function in relative isolation love to get information online, in libraries or in archives. These are all great places to obtain information, but sometimes interacting face-to-face (or mouth-to-ear) with other individuals is necessary. Family history cannot be conducted in a vacuum--interaction with other living individuals is necessary. And the human mind is the most fragile genealogical source available.

One never knows when that fragility may be called home.

  • My Grandma died in 1994 and I had unanswered questions.
  • My Grandpa's sister died in 2001 and there were things about her parents I never got around to asking.
  • My Granddad died in 2003 and there were questions I wish I had asked.

It can easily happen.

Did I put off making that call?

Am I glad I finally picked up the phone?

Will I do it again?
You bet.

If you've been putting off making a call, do it. You won't lose a commission or a sale, and you may have more to gain than you ever expected.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael's other genealogy articles