Some thoughts on having a genealogy elevator pitch

I just returned from the inaugural New York State Family History Conference in Syracuse.  While there have been New York tracks at other conferences, at last there is an event focusing solely on research in New York State.  Sponsors expect this to be a biennial event, and I certainly plan on attending the next one in 2015!

New York has a reputation of being difficult to research due to a complex legal system, inconsistent record keeping, changing jurisdictions, and countless records lost because of fires and natural disasters. Speakers at the conference helped navigate this morass, and I left feeling that I might actually have a new plan of attack for my most challenging brick walls.

One of the best parts of going to a genealogy conference, though, is that you are surrounded by 400 others who share your seldom-appreciated obsession with dead people.  The trouble is, most of them are interested in other dead people and have not the slightest shred of interest in yours....and that's what I want to talk about.  

There is an art and a science to getting along with others at a genealogy conference!  I can't tell you the number of people I met who wanted to tell me a long and convoluted story about how they finally found their ancestral family out of ten others with the same name.  Others want to detail every step they took tracing their ancestor's home in the old country.  My perennial favorite is the type that insists on telling me that they have researched their family back to 1425 -- then proceeding to tell me all the names in their tree.   People like this must get so much indifference from their friends and family that they are desperate to share their discoveries with anyone who will listen.  

I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful husband who listens and encourages, and even occasionally asks questions, so I don't feel the need to tell my story to strangers.  (Well, I don't count this, dear reader, are free to click away at will and I won't be offended!)  

The fact is, each and every one of the people who bore us at conferences have wonderful stories to share if they could learn to package them differently.  In business, there is something called the elevator pitch.  Successful salesmen should be able to summarize their service or product in the space of a 30-second elevator ride.  

As genealogists, we should all come up with an elevator pitch describing our research interests.  Remember that no one cares as much about the details of your research as you do, so try to focus on general themes instead:  "I am researching a Wheeler family in Schoharie County that came from Connecticut around 1820".... or "my Cookingham family descended from the Palatines who settled in East Camp in the early 1700s."  We all have a lot of ancestors, just choose one to start a conversation!

Sometimes if you leave out the names, and omit the steps you took to discover the information, you are left with the bare bones of a tale that others can actually relate to.  Remember that stories have universal appeal.

I was preparing to assume the glazed look of polite boredom when a woman I met at the conference started to tell me about her research.  She told of reading the Civil War pension file of a man who stood up when his commander said get down: he was shot by the enemy and was left for dead on the battlefield.  Somehow he survived, but was seriously injured and lost his memory.  All he had to guide him was a Bible inscribed with a surname, the first initial "H," and a regiment designation.  He eventually married and had children, but for most of his life didn't know his own name, variously going by Harvey, Harold, Henry, etc.  He finally found out who he was in 1915, when he read in the paper that there was to be a reunion of the regiment listed in the Bible.  The old boys nearly had a heart attack when he showed up, all exclaiming:  "But you were killed!"  

I have no clue whose family this story belongs to, or how many hours the woman spent reading through pension applications before she came to this one.... none of that matters to anyone but her. But boy, I'm glad she shared that story!