Tips + Tricks

Moments can unspool into stories. With a little planning you can be ready to capture it as it happens and connect it to the context that will preserve it for generations. Here's how.

How to preserve grandma's story for generations—in context

Moments can unspool into stories. With a little planning you can be ready to capture it as it happens and connect it to the context that will preserve it for generations. Here's how.

For many of us, pandemic losses have given us a new appreciation for the precious moments when our elders start telling their stories. After decades of lived history, they've collected not only their own but the generational memories of their elders. You already know how important it is to capture these stories, but it can be hard to accomplish.

The mood has to be just right, and the trigger has to be convenient. The challenge to capturing your loved one's stories is only partially technical. The biggest part is social. Grandma probably won't respond to giving a performance. She probably won't be happy to be propped in front of a video camera with a headset strapped on over her hearing aids.

There is a way, however. Here's an approach we've found to be helpful.

The high-level plan

This strategy is really very simple and just boils down to three elements: Preparing the environment, Capturing the moment and Preserving the Context.

Preparing the environment: Have a topic in mind. Perhaps something your loved one has retold many times. It may be annoying, but it's also iconic and uniquely her story. It might even be a hidden secret no one ever asked her about. In the right environment, anything can happen.

Here, you can use anything as a foil. Journals like Lisa Lisson's 100 Questions for Grandma or AnonymousHouseElf's Family Tree Book are terrific options because they're beautiful gifts. They have lines for grandma make notes, and if you offer to record her responses, you're saving her the burden of writing answers to the questions in long-hand. (Win-win!)

Truly, any object, book, or album, works. What matters is that the item is something that is suitable to trigger the conversation with your charming youngster. That grandchild who has never have heard the story before makes a perfect audience. Remember, this just sets the stage.

A screenshot from Ponga illustrating an embedded video.
A Ponga picture with a visible video preview. Perhaps this was grandma telling her grandchild about how she taught her little sister to make daisy chains.

Capturing the moment: The good stuff happens when you capture the moment then put it in context so you can circle back to it as an epic part of the story. Here's how to it with no more technology than you'd use to capture your cat in a very floofy stretch. Today's incredible smartphone cameras make it easy to capture the moment with the device you always have at hand.  

Preserving the Context: A video recording in modern smartphones is just a standard file that can be uploaded to cloud storage or video hosting sites. With a little planning you can do that in a click of a button. Once it's in the cloud, you'll just copy the link and circle back to the photograph of the object or album that triggered the story in Ponga, and paste the link. 

That's pretty much it. 


Spot the magic grandma bond

As part of your preparation, you'll need to find the "magic grandma bond." You're looking for the person who will connect with your elder and inspire them to tell their tale. A story told to a microphone can be intimidating. A story told to a interested child can be fun and inspiring. Find the child and you'll have your magic.

Your beloved elder sitting in a comfortable chair ready to tell a story to a child.y
Grandma doesn't actually have to be the child's grandma — or really even anyone's grandmother.

Realize that she doesn't have to be a “grandma.” Finding the bond is the magic bit. It doesn't have to be a grandmother and grandchild. It could just as easily be a grandfather, a loved aunt or a neighbor. What is special is the generation jump where the grandchild or youngster is interested because they've never heard the story before. That's where the magical spark of energy  happens. 

Consider an age-appropriate conspiracy. To be fair, the right pairing alone might be enough.  If the grandchild is very young, they'll probably be accustomed to being filmed and won't pay any attention. Preteens like 8 or 9-year olds may be more self-aware and clam up when you bring out the camera. These are the kids you'll want to bring in on the plan as if it's a conspiracy. Tell them they're not the subject of the recording—but their grandma is. Even more important—it's a secret. Chances are they'll jump into the conspiracy with gusto asking inspired questions you might not ever have thought of. 

Be strategic

While there may be many situations when just hearing the recorded voice of a loved one is a treasure, we're looking to go beyond that to have your grandma talk about the important things in your family story.

Prints, albums, objects, and journals, can be the trigger to get grandma talking when she sits with a child.

This is where objects, albums, journals, and individual photos can be so useful. Think of them as “talking sticks” that gives the elder a chance to tell their story with the rapt attention of someone who's not heard the story before. As elders struggle with cognitive, aural, or speech deficits, they may be shy or take their time telling a story.

If you're working with a young child who may squirm enough to distract the elder, you may want to give them some relevant activities to keep them focused. Coloring books, paper folding, or other hands-on activities can be a good complement to the exercise. (Think like a kindergarten teachers at story time.)

Grandma may be in on it, even if she doesn't let on

The elderly generally have a pretty understanding that their time is limited—even if they don't want to talk about it. They also are usually pretty motivated to tell their stories. If you give them a chance to see what you're up to, they may very well be eager to participate. Often, they've been just waiting for you to ask.


Once you've got your loved one paired with a suitable foil, it's time to capture their story. Like capturing the antics of kittens, you want to set your stage casually or you risk crushing the mood. 

Your set is probably already designed

While a formal set might seem more professional, that's not the goal here. You're capturing your grandma in her natural environment. Her favorite chair in her own living room is probably ideal. There are some technical details, but nothing much fancier than you might already have considered to take a nice portrait. You'll want to be cautious that you have a light source focused on your subject and not behind it, for example. You don't need to fuss.

Natural lighting might be just that comfy chair grandma likes to spend her time in. Have you heard her story about her teddy bear?

Lighting and microphones are mostly about not letting external factors bother you. If the afternoon sun is beaming in a window, you might close the curtains and turn on a bright lamp. With the  digital cameras built into modern smartphones like the iPhone, you don't need specialized lighting.

In fact, capturing grandma in her "natural environment," can be a very special opportunity. Take a few stills when you have the set ready. Those stills will also confirm that the lighting looks right, and be treasures by themselves.

A directional mic, do you really need it? 

As with riding a bike, fancy gear may make it better, but you may not need it. You can probably solve most mic problems by finding a quiet space to set your stage. If you're mindful of distractions from TVs, traffic, or wind chimes, you can probably capture all you need by pointing your phone appropriately.

If you're not sure or you're concerned about external sounds, there are many wireless lavalier mic options available on the market, but they can be expensive. You'll find videos on YouTube  with instructions for selecting and configuring them with your smartphone or video recording device.

Do I need a tripod or stand for my smartphone?

A USB power adapter as a simple and instantly ready stand for your phone.
A USB power adapter as a simple and instantly ready stand for your phone.

If you've noticed the trend here, the simple answer is no. Fancy phone stands and remote mics may help create a more perfect video, but they can also spoil the mood and prevent grandma from just authentically telling her story. Here's where simpler can be better.

We recommend using a little home-spun ingenuity: A USB power adapter can suit the purpose if you lay it on a table with the prongs up. The slot between the two prongs creates a perfect little stand with just enough tilt to focus on your subject. You can even adjust the height by laying your stand on top of a convenient stack of books. 

If that's not a good fit for you, consider zip ties and the back of a nearby straight chair. You might be surprised at the amount of control you'll have over the height, tilt and angle of your camera when tied to a chair. Remember, this setup just needs to capture a moment. Keeping it inexpensive and casual helps underscore the authenticity and may make your grandma feel just a little more comfortable and relaxed.

Preserve in Context

It's easy as easy as sharing in Facebook — yet entirely private.

While a little digital magic is involved, this is super simple and no more technical than sharing a video on Facebook. When you share a video to your special interest group on Facebook, you're sharing it in context. The context is the group, making a selection in a picture is like making a post, then just paste the link. The conversation flows from there. This is pretty much the same thing.

Using Ponga, you're creating a private space for your photos and adding written and recorded comments, articles, and more to provide context. Since Ponga is  completely within your control, you get to decide who can see your pictures and add their perspective to the developing story. Should you decide share a video in a selected bit of a picture, you just select and paste the link to the video. 

The mechanics are no more complicated than that. 

Think about that video you captured.

What was grandma talking about when she told her story? Capture that photo, album, object, or whatever as a digital image. Remember, it doesn't have to be exactly the object she was holding. What matters is that the photo is visually interesting and that the story gives it relevance.

Your photo may look like this one by Grabill, John C. H, from the US Library of Congress. Crop from “Freighting in the Black Hills.” Black Hills South Dakota Wyoming. [Between 1887 and 1892] Photograph,

Consider your grandma holding on to a bible her grandmother had given her after carrying it across the prairies in a covered wagon. The bible itself may be precious but not all that interesting to look at. However, that  old photograph of your grandma's grandmother as a small child way in the back of the covered wagon could be truly compelling when combined with grandma's story. The photo of the covered wagon with the video playback in context would be visually much more interesting. You can even add a scan of the bible cover, registry pages, and other detail later as a PDF.

Consider where to store your video in the cloud.

This may seem like a complicated technical question, but it really isn't. Ask any teenager capturing skate videos. In choosing cloud storage for your video, you're considering a balance of privacy and convenience that works for you. As you'll see in our more detailed hands-on guide below, there are a wide range of options available on today's public internet. Even better, most are completely free.

Screenshot from Google's YouTube interface where the choice is made between public, private, or unlisted.
Screenshot from Google's YouTube interface where the choice is made between public, private, or unlisted.

If you have any kind of Google account (Gmail, YouTube, Photos, etc.) you consider uploading your video to YouTube then sharing it as an Unlisted video. It's a terrific option — and it's free with your Google account. When you paste the video link into your Ponga picture, it will automatically embed so that the video can play in the context of the image. Automatic embeds will happen as long as the link to the site you're using to host the video is not blocked by login screens or pay walls. Google offers options for public, private, and unlisted links to the video.

iPhone screenshot from the YouTube video app showing the selection to upload a video.

If complete privacy is a concern then consider using a private site to host your video (YouTube private is an option, but there are many more.) When you paste your video link into Ponga, you'll enter the link without the "https://" protocol designator and your viewer will be required to enter their credentials before viewing the video. More about controlling previews here.

Copy the link, paste the link

The actual step of uploading is surprisingly simple.  The YouTube app you may already use to watch how-to videos about knitting or fixing the dishwasher includes the ability to upload your own videos. From the main interface, tap on the large "+" button in a circle, then choose "Upload a video." Once it's uploaded, you'll have options to configure privacy and access to the link (or URL.) That's all you need for Ponga.

From there all you do is copy the link from your video site (such as YouTube) and  paste the link into Ponga. You can learn more about adding video links into Ponga pictures here. It's really not any more complicated than that.

A screenshot of the YouTube share screen where you copy out the link to the video. You can choose your link to start playing from a designated point in the recording.

YouTube has a particular feature that can be helpful here that allows you to specify in a link when you want the video to start. That can be useful because it can save you the grief of editing the video.

Just start the playback at the "good part," that's relevant to the story you're telling in your Ponga picture. In this example, the start is at 32 seconds after the start of the video. That start number automatically updates as the video plays so you can just play it far enough to find the start time, check that box and copy the link.


Ponga Hands-on Guide to Video Shared in Pictures available to you for free.

What you'll have seen here is that the combination of video and a still image creates a powerful way to create context, connection, and meaning. We've shown you how any ordinary photograph, album, journal — or even object — can be used to make it easier to capture that video.

Request our hands-on guide to adding video to Ponga pictures. It goes into detail about cloud storage as an alternative to video hosting services like YouTube.

Feel free to reach out if you have any further questions. We're right there for you in the Live Chat in the bottom left of the window. 👋

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