Speaking Topics

I lecture at genealogical conferences and other meetings around the U.S. Your group will love my informative and entertaining presentations! Please contact me about specific dates and speaking fees. I am available for all-day seminars, too: click here for more details. For travel past metro Cleveland, Ohio, travel and hotel accommodations must be included. For beginner lectures, please scroll to the bottom of the page.


Your Powerful Legacy. One of the most powerful and unique legacies you can share is the story of who you are and where you came from. Research shows that children are more resilient when they know stories about their roots. I’ve met thousands of family history buffs who express a deeper sense of identity, purpose and connectedness because they can define stronger links between themselves and the past. I’ll talk about why this is so and leave you with strategies for starting to reconstruct and share your heritage. The handout includes inspiring, get-started-now resources to trace your heritage.

Your Stories Matter. Every life is fascinating when it’s well shared. Learn from the author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy what stories YOU have that are worth telling. Hear several inspiring reasons to write them down–for both your own benefit and that of others. Learn why some memories are more vivid than others and how to flesh them out. Learn tips for researching gaps in your memories, how to turn a memory into a good story, what to leave out and several ways to share your stories. The handout includes a life story writing exercise worksheet to help you get started.

UPDATED! Comparing the Genealogy Giants: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. These “genealogy giants” all provide international audiences with tools and records for researching family trees online. But which should you use? Learn why you should be familiar with all four sites; subscription and free access options; and how they compare for overall historical, tree and DNA record content. See general geographic strengths and how to find specific geographic content on each, as well as my favorite features and cautions/challenges for working with each. You’ll also get a suggestion for building your “master family tree” securely—and from more than one website. This was an extremely popular lecture at RootsTech 2017 and got a great review from Dick Eastman.

NEW! Historical Records on the Giant Genealogy Websites. This session offers a close-up, comparative look at historical record content on Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Learn about core content for several countries that is common to multiple sites (and subtle differences between some of these databases). Learn about specific geographical and record-type strengths for each site, with head-to-head comparisons for U.S. census, Scandinavian and Australian record content. Learn how different ways of counting their records affect the way you should evaluate overall statistics for record content on each site. This lecture is especially relevant now that FamilySearch has discontinued its microfilm lending program: you’ll leave with the tools you need to find the records you want on these websites!

COMING IN 2018: Should I Take the Hint? The giant genealogy websites all offer automated technologies for matching your ancestors to their historical records (think Ancestry.com’s “shaky leaves). Some sites also match your tree against other trees and even genetic data. Learn more about these hinting systems, how they differ from regular searches, and how to be smart and effective about using them.

NEW: Digging for Historical Records on FamilySearchFamilySearch is arguably the world’s biggest free portal especially to genealogical records. However, the site is so enormous and organized such that it’s easy to miss some of its valuable content. This lecture offers a behind-the-scenes tour with an expert who has quizzed top FamilySearch officers in-depth about why and how the site is organized like it is. You’ll explore four different ways of using FamilySearch to find records of all kinds on the site AND even at other genealogy websites and offline! This lecture is friendly to beginners on the site but also shows experienced researchers how to find the records that now aren’t available from FamilySearch microfilm lending any more.

5 Ways to Facebook Your Family History. Use Facebook to share heritage with young and old relatives! This lecture demonstrates successful ways I’ve used Facebook to connect more meaningfully with kin, ask genealogy research questions, share discoveries, honor deceased relatives and even plan a family reunion. The handout includes a helpful how-to mini-manual to help users learn to navigate Facebook more confidently and with better privacy controls.

Going In-Depth with the US Census. The US census population schedules are some of the first records many researchers encounter. But many never learn to get the most out of census records. Learn how the instructions followed by census-takers can help you better interpret what they wrote. Learn tips for telling where exactly a family lived, what different abbreviations meant and how a census record can alert you to additional records you should search or a family structure that isn’t spelled out (like a second marriage). This is a great stand-alone lecture but also pairs well with the lecture below.

What’s So Special about Special Censuses? Learn to find and use fantastic “extras” from US censuses (1840-1910), many of which are now online: the Veterans, Mortality, Slave, Agriculture, Manufacturer and Social Statistics Schedules. These often reveal details about ancestors’ vital events, work, health, military service and communities, in the process pointing to additional records. This lively lecture shares the stories behind each of the special censuses–why the government gathered this information at this time–and offers clues that help you know when to look for an ancestor on a special census.

Why We Care Where Grandma Went to Church. U.S. church records can reveal ancestors’ vital events, family relationships and prior/subsequent residences (including overseas birthplaces!). From the author of the forthcoming book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records, learn what various types of church records look like, how to identify an ancestral church, locate extant records and access them.

Two hour seminar special“Why We Care Where Grandma Went to Church,” PLUS this fantastic follow-up lecture:
“They Once Were Lost but Now are Found:” Using U.S. Church Records to Solve Genealogical Mysteries. Church records can be challenging to locate and access in the U.S. When are they worth your while? When you’re trying to answer specific kinds of questions.  I’ll share lively case studies that use church records from various time periods, denominations and ethnic groups to address common types of research problems.

Find Your Family in Catholic Church Records. Roman Catholic sacramental records often contain vital events, relationships, and overseas hometowns. They’re also confidential, so they can be tricky to access–except that millions are coming online beginning in 2017. Learn about Catholicism in the U.S., what’s in sacramental records and what they look like, how to identify an ancestral parish, and tips for accessing these and related Catholic records. You’ll take home a handout packed with tools for tracing your Catholic ancestors’ records.

Relatively Recent Relatives: 20th Century Research
Learning more about your immediate forebears can strengthen emotional bonds—and your family trees. But privacy and copyright restrictions on modern records can be daunting. Learn about 20th-century records that can minimize these barriers. See lively examples of how to combine information from several records to discover meaningful stories and build a more solid “trunk” for your family tree.

Collateral Kin: Indirect Routes to Direct Ancestors. The most direct route to information about direct ancestors may be through other relatives and in-laws. Three concise case studies demonstrate the value of researching these “collateral kin.” See how collateral research helped prove an ancestor’s parents, solve a migration mystery and fill gaps in an ancestor’s biography. Handout included..

Lies, Errors and Bias—Oh, My! Consider Your Sources. If your sources aren’t reliable and strong, your family history “facts” and stories won’t be, either. Learn to look critically at the sources that inform your research: the “what, who, when and why.” These criteria may indicate how much you can trust what individual sources say about your ancestors. 

Urban Genealogy. Many of our U.S. relatives lived in cities—big and small—which may offer unique genealogy research resources. Learn tips from the author of several of Family Tree Magazine’s City Guides for finding ancestors in city directories, urban and suburban maps, voting records, local histories and other rich local records. 

Which Way Did They Go?! A humorous song introduces this panoramic look at U.S. migration history and how to track our on-the-move ancestors. You’ll see what kinds of records mention old and new residences, a unique transportation timeline for U.S. history, where to learn about migration routes and how to correlate findings from several sources into a narrative about an ancestor’s life.

NEW! “They Survived the Johnstown Flood?!” How to Reconstruct Your Ancestors’ Amazing Stories. A heroic rescue, a love story and a 30-foot wall of water. That’s just part of my ancestors’ experience in the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889. Come learn how to reconstruct fascinating experiences from your own family history by combining clues from your family’s knowledge, documents from genealogy websites, good historical research and Googling to fill in the gaps. All while learning the riveting story of one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.

Share Your Life Stories More Meaningfully. Every life is fascinating when it’s well shared! Learn from the author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy what stories you have that are worth telling–and several inspiring reasons to write them. Review different kinds of memories, why some memories are more vivid than others, and how to flesh them out. Learn tips for researching gaps in your memories, how to turn a memory into a good story, what to leave out and several ways to share your stories. The handout includes a life story writing exercise worksheet to help you get started.

NEW! “I, Genealogist:” Writing the Family History Memoir. Family history begins with memories of your life and relatives. Learn to write about these (and other “genealogical journeys”) in the first-person voice, following best practices of acclaimed family memoir writers. Consider potential pitfalls when writing history subjectively; your “sources” and how to cite them; reconstructing the past with emotional truths when facts are sparse and more.

Plan Your Next Family History Writing Project: Hands-on Workshop. With worksheet and pen in hand, attendees will plan their next family history writing project. They’ll consider how to prioritize writing projects and target an audience; privacy concerns and family secrets; writing and citation styles; and how all these considerations affect what the final product looks like. This class is available in both one-hour and two-hour formats.

Climb Your Family Tree: How to Start Exploring Your Family History. Come learn how to get started tracing your family’s unique history! A nationally-known genealogy teacher walks you through the process of collecting family stories at home, finding old documents about ancestors, writing and sharing what you learn, and even taking DNA tests to find your biological roots. A resource-packed how-to handout is included.

I have also developed an 8-hour curriculum for beginning genealogists, meant to be taught as four 2-hour classes for adults. Contact me for further information about teaching this series to your group in the local Cleveland area.

3 thoughts on “Speaking Topics

  1. Frances Pickett

    Sonny….I believe you spoke a few months ago at the Hungarian Genealogy Association. I hope you are the same person I am thinking of. I am interested in discussing your availability for a presentation to the Cuyahoga Valley Genealogical Society. The particular date I have in mind is in January, 2013 (or another sometime in 2013 if January is not feasible.) Please email or call me. Home 440-232-2473 Cell 440-539-2326.

    Look forward to hearing from you… Frances Pickett, CVGS Vice President

  2. Teresa Rhodes, Marketing and Outreach Coordinator, Salem Public Library, Salem, Ohio

    Are you booking speaking engagements this year? I read a press release online last year announcing that you would be speaking for the Hudson Genealogical Study Group. I am on the lookout for presenters of genealogical topics for Salem Public Library. If you are doing presentations this year would you provide me with topics and fees involved?

    Thank you for our time and assistance.
    Teresa Rhodes, Marketing & Outreach Coordinator
    Salem Public Library

  3. Gracine Wiggins

    Hi Sunny,

    Your name was given to me by Diana Rogers.

    I would love for you to present a beginning genealogy program at Willowick library.

    Please forward your fee and contact information.

    I’m looking to have you present a program in 2015 around the spring.


    Gracine Wiggins, Assistant Manager

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