I love my job! As a freelance non-profit communicator, I get to work with organizations who want to tell their stories in meaningful ways. A large part of this has always been conducting interviews. And it certainly doesn’t always come easy!
As someone who was trained in the academic world to write straight from my own thoughts and book-driven research, learning how to conduct meaningful interviews was definitely a challenging albeit completely necessary skill to learn. I have definitely made some mistakes along the way, but have thankfully learned many lessons that now help me ask better questions and tell better stories.
Here are my 5 tips for conducting better interviews.
1) Have a plan, and communicate it!
“What will this interview be used for?” is a common first question I get. And I need to come prepared to answer!
Is this a one-off interview, or is one in a series of similar stories? What is the call to action for this specific piece going to be? How will the final product fit in to your overall communications strategy?
Maybe this seems obvious, but it is sometimes overlooked.
“We want to tell stories!” is a nice place to start, but you should really figure out the why before you start the interview process.
You don’t need to dive deep into organizational specifics with your interviewee, but being able to say “we want to tell your story as part of our volunteer appreciation event” or “we want your story to be the focus of our annual appeal” is much stronger and more transparent than “we want to share your story with our supporters.”
2) Have a pre-determined list of questions and arrange in a logical order.
As Vanessa has pointed out in the past, don’t just lead with “so what’s your story?” Hello?! That’s what YOU’RE there to figure out! 😉
I often structure my interview process much like a five act play. You are enabling interviewees to tell their story, and asking questions that follow a plot arch is a natural way to encourage them to develop their own narrative.
Act 1 is the exposition. This is where I get to know the back story. I like to start with specific questions about their past – where did you grow up? Do you remember some early memories about community or generosity? Who were some early influences in your life? Drawing out nostalgia, if appropriate, is a great way to not only trace the storyteller’s journey, but it helps them get warmed up to their role as the storyteller.
Act 2 is the conflict. This conflict need not be negative! Likely, the story they start telling you about their past will move naturally into this. This is explored through questions like “when did you first hear about x organization?” or “what attracted you to this cause?” It is sometimes a point of agitation. “I needed help with xyz” or “I wanted to do more for my community.”
Act 3 is rising action and climax. This explores a crucial moment of transformation in the person. For some stories, the climax may actually be that moment when that person walks through the door of your organization and her life changes forever. For others, it might be feeling improved health from a service provided, or graduating from high school after working one on one with an organization’s tutors. Exploring their first memories or interactions at the organization start unfolding this, and are further developed with questions like “is there a particular moment or memory that stands out most?” or “is there an achievement or contribution you are most proud of?”
Act 4 is falling action. Falling, as in falling into place. Other pieces of the story are revealed. Here is when I would turn to motivations to stay involved, what life has been like since, or what changes have come about because of their involvement. I may even turn to lighter subjects, like funny or interesting anecdotes. Depending on your subject matter, the story could get very intense and you may want to lighten things up!
Act 5 is the denouement. This is for closing thoughts and lessons learned. “What have you learned about xx?” or “With so many great organizations to support, why should others choose to support XX?” This is where an open-ended question like “Is there anything I missed?” or “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” doesn’t hurt!
Aim for about 10-12 core questions to walk you through this arch.
3) Be ready to explore rabbit holes.
Always be prepared to ask follow-up questions to any particularly interesting or thought-provoking answers. You can ask for specific examples, further explanation, or explore the person’s feelings around a particular statement.
Try not to lead their answers with statements like “I bet that made you feel proud, right?” but rather “How did that make you feel?”
You want to try to stick to your question guideline (especially if this content is following in a similar set or series of interviews), but you never know what other interesting details and direction this may lead to!
4) Aim for short. Be prepared for long.
Your 10 or so questions will likely yield a 30 minute conversation. In booking your interview, ask for 30 minutes, but be prepared to stick around longer if they have the time and the desire to keep talking. If the interviewee starts going off the rails a bit, try to keep them on task, but if the conversation is flowing and you’re getting great details, let it go on!
Whatever is natural is best. I’ve had great interviews wrap right on time, and others that lasted over two hours because the conversation was just so great!
5) Learn to be a great listener.
This is a skill that will help you in every aspect of your life, I promise! We have been conditioned in many ways to practice competitive listening. So often in our interactions, we are practicing a kind of faux-listening, where instead of actively listening, we are planning our response, anticipating the speaker’s answer, or letting our minds wander to completely different things.
You can be a better listener by
- Eliminating distractions
- Facing the speaker and maintaining eye contact
- Focusing on what is being said
- Keeping an open mind to what is being said
- Responding appropriately and asking follow up questions
- Being mindful of your body language
- Not interrupting
If we want to tell better stories, we must first strive to be better listeners!
This post was written by Sheena Greer. Sheena is also presented a session at The Storytelling Non-Profit Virtual Conference on Friday, February 27. Be sure to check out her session!
About Sheena: Raised on a farm on a heavy diet of George Carlin and William Blake, Sheena Greer began her grown up life with aspirations of being a film director or Medieval English professor, and finally settled in to the non-profit world. After a decade of experience in non-profit communications, programming, and fundraising, she decided she needed to do more to help organizations communicate their missions. Her company, Colludo, was born of a disruptive spirit and a lofty goal: simple, powerful communications that help organizations do all the cool things they’ve always dreamed of doing.