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'Start with the heart vs. the chart' and share family stories

Stephen Rockwood, president of FamilySearch, with Alison Taylor, right, and Joanne Milner, left.
Stephen Rockwood, president of FamilySearch, with Alison Taylor, right, and Joanne Milner, left.
Tom Taylor

It was a red-letter day for us in our career as personal historians, and a bit of a “celebrity crush” moment for us as hobby genealogists. It was our privilege to interview Stephen Rockwood, new CEO of FamilySearch International, in November.

Because our passion is family history storytelling, we were curious about the emphasis that FamilySearch has placed on encouraging users to upload stories, photos and other memories of their family members in addition to historical data. We asked Rockwood about this change of focus.

“It's not by happenstance,” he said during our interview. “It is calculated. When we took a serious look at this, we found that the traditional approach to family history was names, dates and places and charts. And then in the last 15 years, computers and charts and names, dates and places. … When a member of the church or someone of the general public decided, ‘I want to participate in (family history),’ what’s the first thing we’d do? We’d give ’em a chart. We’d give ’em a computer, and we said, ‘What are the names, dates and places?’”

As a result, this person who started out on fire about their family history would soon be mired in a “clerical funnel,” which snuffed out their enthusiasm.

“Only a few people would actually submit themselves to the clerical research,” Rockwood said. But for those few who had the patience and determination to get to the other side of that funnel, it suddenly got more exciting.

“They would start sharing. (They would realize) ‘You know what? These aren't just names, dates and places; these are real people,’” he said. "And they'd start talking about the stories, and they'd start feeling the spirit that we know to be the spirit of Elijah.”

An “upside down and backward” reboot in the approach to family history was needed. Rockwood and his team suggested, "If we're starting with charts and names, dates and places, so that they ultimately get to the stories and this unbelievable spirit motivates them to keep going, why don't we just turn it upside down? What if we started with stories?”

Starting with a story, they thought, would ultimately lead to the important data. “And especially if you're doing temple work, you ultimately have to get there," he said. "But don't start there. Let's end there. Let's start with something that everyone can participate in, everyone can get excited about.”

He calls this approach “start with the heart vs. the chart.”

This “upside down and backwards” approach is reflected in the booklet “My Family: Stories That Bring Us Together,” which is available worldwide in print and online from

“There's a reason why the pedigree chart is on the last page,” which Rockwood said drives some genealogists crazy. But the idea behind it was to start with what he calls a “normal conversation” about one’s family.

“Tell me the name of your mother. What are some of your sweetest memories or stories about her?” he suggests asking. "I don't have to refer to anything. … I can tell you the name of my mother and my grandfather. I can tell you a story about them, and we're just conversing. And by the way, the spirit of Elijah has just been invited. And so we believe that the Holy Ghost is now part of that conversation.”

This family storytelling process can be a bridge between generations. Older people may not have the skills or ability for Internet research, but Rockwood reminded us that “the older people in every family are the heroes, because they know the stories. We literally have come to the point where we let the young people from the family do that computer work, and that's what they're heroes at, let the older people do the stories, let the rest of us try to bring it all together, and now it truly becomes a family affair.”

Tom and Alison Taylor have helped hundreds of people, businesses and towns tell their stories in books and video. They are authors of the book “How to Save Your Life, One Chapter at a Time.” Their website is at