Whenever I have asked non-profit professionals what the most challenging part of storytelling is, people consistently tell me that it’s is finding stories to tell. Not only does there need to be some organizational collaboration when it comes to finding stories to tell, you also have to interview people for their stories. The latter part often proves to be the most challenging and understandably so.
Over on Twitter, Jenn – a development officer – asked me a great question about interviewing people for their story. Here is Jenn’s question: “Interviewing clients seems to always be a struggle for me. I’m never sure what to say and I don’t feel like I get the right information to be able to use the story in fundraising. What can I do to improve my interviews and get the information I need?”
No doubt about it, interviewing clients can be challenging. I can think of several interviews I did early on in my career that I wish I could re-do. I fumbled. I wasn’t sure how to keep the conversation going. It was nothing short of awkward. But even worse than the awkwardness, I would get back to my desk only to find that I had no useful information to write the story. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. After that happened to me a few times, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to ask better questions during interviews so that I could tell better stories. Today I want to share a few tips that have served me well when I interview people for their story.
Tip #1 – Do Your Research
There’s an old adage that says, “Failing to plan is like planning to fail.” Although the sentiment is a tad dramatic, it’s true for storytelling. When you show up at an interview without questions or an idea of where the conversation will go, you are setting yourself up for failure.
If you are interviewing someone that you don’t know very well, it can be helpful to do some research ahead of time so that you have a bit of background information to work from. This might involve talking to other staff members or volunteers who know the person you plan to interview. Ask them for their perspective on this client’s story. Take note of any interesting details so that you can ask about them during the interview. I also like to ask them – What’s one question I should definitely ask this person?
Once you have done some preliminary research for your story interview, start to think about the key questions you want to ask. I usually like to come prepared with 5 to 7 questions, but I also stay open to the possibility of the conversation going in unexpected and interesting directions.
Tip #2 – Think About the Trajectory of the Story
Having interviewed dozens of people for their stories, one of the things that I’ve observed is that my role as an interviewer is to gently guide the storyteller. Many storytellers have not reflected on their story before or they may be in the midst of their story. In both cases, they may have difficulty articulating what happened. This situation requires a lot of compassion and empathy for the storyteller. What they are doing is hard work!
In these situations, I like to take a step back and think about the trajectory of the story. For instance, what happened at the beginning, the middle, and the end? Also, what was the problem? And, who was involved? Then I’ll ask a series of questions to get the interviewee to walk me through the story, which I find can give them the structure they need to articulate what they have experienced.
Tip #3 – Create a Comfortable Environment
In order for someone to feel at ease and be okay with the vulnerability of storytelling, they need to feel safe and comfortable. I find this is especially true if you’ve never met the storyteller before. There will be a need to quickly form trust so that they feel comfortable sharing their story. Sometimes sitting across a table from someone is just not going to cut it. Luckily there is a lot you can do to create an ideal environment for your storyteller.
For starters, ask the client where they would like to meet. If they want to meet at your office, don’t meet in the boardroom. Choose an environment that is familiar and comfortable for them. For instance, maybe meet in a place they’ve been to before in your building. You can also think about meeting them offsite. Another thing that I’ve done is rather than sitting down for the interview, I’ll plan to do something with the storyteller such as going for a walk.
At the beginning of the interview, focus on building a rapport. Ask them about themselves and get to know them. Share some things about yourself, too, so that they get to know you as well. It is also helpful to let them know that they are under no obligation to answer all of the questions that you ask. This gives them agency and control over the storytelling process.
It is also helpful to let them know that they are under no obligation to answer all of the questions that you ask. This gives them agency and control over the storytelling process.
Tip #4 – Be Curious
A story is all about the details, so if you want to tell a great story you have to be curious. In my early experiences of interviewing people for their stories, one of the mistakes that I would make was not asking follow up questions. I would ask the storyteller my questions and then assume that there was nothing else to share. I frequently came away from interviews with too little information to tell a decent story. So start to think about the small follow up questions you can ask to bring the details of the story to life. Here are a few that I like to ask:
- Why did they decide to do that?
- How were they feeling?
- What were others telling them?
Also, if it’s helpful, write down a list of follow up questions you can ask during interviews to serve as a reminder.
Tip #5 – Relax! Remember, It’s Just a Conversation
I think this is possibly the best advice I can share with you. Don’t over think the interview. The bottom line is that it’s just a conversation. Two people, talking to each other and getting to know one another. That’s it.
I know that I often put a lot of pressure on myself to get things “right” or “perfect” all the time. But as soon as I recognized that there was no right way to interview someone, I was able to relax and actually enjoy the process. Nowadays, I see interviewing people as a huge privilege and something I look forward to.