Originally published 2009
Republished January 21, 2014
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 15: Genealogy Cold Calling II: 14 Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives
Connecting with someone who knows about our ancestors can really boost our research results—and even create new relationships among living kin. But it’s not always easy to send that first email or make that call.
In today’s episode we talk about the skill of “genealogical cold calling.” Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying. We’ll chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted hundreds of telephone interviews. She has a knack for quickly connecting with folks she doesn’t know over the telephone in ways that put them at ease and bring to light the information that she’s looking for.
But first, we do some follow up with an email from a listener about family trees. Then, I share a little story that puts into practice what we’ve learned so far in this podcast series.
14 Steps to Genealogical Cold Calling Success
#1. Identify the person you want to call.
#2. Locate the person’s phone number. Below are some great websites for locating people you don’t know. The list is updated from the one given in the show. And Whowhere.com now has an app for Android, iPhone and other mobile devices. Check it out
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. If all else fails consider posting on a message board for the surname
#3. Prepare ahead for making the call.
Every tough job gets just a little easier when you do your homework first. Follow these tips:
- Take into account a possible difference in time zones.
- Choose a time when you are not too rushed
- 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. Get up the “nerve” to call.
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!” And be positive and remember, all they can do is say “no thank you.”
#5. Introduce yourself.
Give your first & last name & tell them the town and state where you live. Then tell them the family connection that you share, and tell them who referred them to you or how you located them 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 you could offer to mail them some information and offer to call back once they’ve had a chance to look at it. That way they can sort of get their bearings too.
#7. What to do during the call
You’ll want to take notes during the phone call. Try a headset which will help to free up your hands for writing. Handwriting is preferably over typing.
Take the opportunity to not just get new information but also to confirm information that you already have–just to make sure it’s correct.
If you have a way to record the call, you don’t have to take notes and focus all of your attention on the conversation, and then transcribe the recording later. If you want to record, ask permission: in some places, it’s illegal to record a conversation without permission and it’s common courtesy to say you’re taping them. But it might put off a stranger; perhaps taping could wait until a second call.
#8. Leave a detailed voice mail message if there’s no answer.
State your name 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.
Be sure and keep track in your genealogy database each time you call and what messages you leave. Having a log of calls and voice mail messages you’ve left will help you keep track.
#9. “Must-ask” questions.
- “Do you or anyone else in the family have any old family photographs, or a family Bible?
- (Reassure the person that you would only be interested in obtaining copies of any pictures or mementos they might have.)
- “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?”
#10. Wrap up the call.
- Ask for their mailing address and email address.
- Offer to give them your address and phone number.
- Let them know you would be pleased to hear from them if they come across any other information, pictures, etc.
#11. Document the call. 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 conversation. Make notes regarding any items you think may be questionable to remind you to go back and do more research on those points. At the bottom of the page list the ACTION items that come to mind that you want to follow up on based on the conversation. 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.
#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 result, 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.
#14. Follow up. Send the person a written note or email thanking them for taking the time to talk with you. If the person mentioned that they would look for pictures or would look up something in a family Bible etc., mention in your note that you would still be interested in anything they can help you with and that you would be glad to pay any copying expenses, postage etc. Offer to provide copies of your information or copies of pictures you have etc. 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. It’s another way of keeping the connection going and expressing that you really do appreciate all their help. Try this service: Birthday Alarm.
Occasionally make a follow up call to check in and see how they are doing, share any new family items she’s come across recently, and ask if they have they heard or found anything else.