The History Factory Blog

The Eyewitness

Posted by & filed under Oral Histories, oral history, Story Bank, Story Banks, Uncategorized.

In any good murder mystery drama, the plot hinges on the eyewitness. Was there a witness? What did they see or hear? Was this the cape the defendant was wearing? What was it like to be there, hiding beneath the covers, when the defendant jumped out from behind the wardrobe and scared the cat to death?

If an eyewitness is credible, their thoughts and opinions hold great weight with a jury, the public, and posterity—which is exactly why recording the eyewitness perspectives of people in oral histories can result in a similarly powerful resource for companies. Documenting stories of success, failure, and transition through oral histories is an effective way to preserve history, experiences, and perceptions.  And from these, the core stories and themes of a company’s heritage emerge for the retelling to key audiences now and in the future.

Local news stations find another effective use of the eyewitness. Though admittedly, the local news may not be quite as strict on accuracy, the people they interview have a lot to say about the atmosphere of an event. Viewers want to hear stories from those who were there and feel the excitement or terror of the witnesses.

Oral histories too convey more than just facts and figures, they convey the more intangible aspects of company through look, feel, and tone. What it was like to be in the boardroom when the company’s stock went public, when the CEO announced the big merger, when the company reached its 1 billionth dollar in business? Oral histories provide eyewitness content that has a great sense of authenticity and is able to be repurposed for use in print, in exhibits, and digital media. Told by those who were there, these are the stories that help preserve and continue culture.

But the eyewitnesses to significant moments in your heritage are starting to retire. While it once seemed that everyone was there when the company successfully rebounded after the dot com bust—or at least knew the story—now, a look of confusion greets the old timers who refer to it in a meeting. As the baby boomer generation ages, the knowledge base and culture of many companies is naturally shifting. So what can you do to help ensure their insights are not lost to the golf courses of Florida?

Act now. Work to identify the key players in your organization. The eyewitnesses in a company’s oral histories are not the local news report’s surfer dude during a hurricane, they are often company executives and other tenured and well respected individuals. Yet just like the surfer guy, they are telling the story and sharing the atmosphere of an event.

Think outside of the expected subject matter experts and executives when choosing interviewees. Who has the best sense of a company’s culture—not just its history? Often it is the longtime assistant who has witnessed more of the organization’s history and has a better grasp on its culture than anyone else. Think outside the box for the greatest variety of perspectives.

Many tales are inspiring, but it will be a company’s own story, told by its own eyewitnesses that will hold the most weight with current and future employees. Preserving that history and culture while people are still working, engaged, and have fresh memories will help capture a story that can be put to use for generations of employees.

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