This is the second post in a special 12-part monthly series — Powerful Nonprofit Stories: Finding, Framing, and Finishing.
Finding great story leads is tough work. Developing the story can be even harder, but it’s worth the effort because it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Even the best leads can go belly up if the interview doesn’t yield the right material.
Here are seven interview tips to help make sure you get what you need for powerful storytelling:
- For in-person interviews, find a comfortable place to talk. This is often an overlooked part of interviewing, but it really matters. The more comfortable someone feels physically, the more he or she may open up and provide really insightful answers. I always like to ask where someone would like to talk when I confirm an interview. Some favorite places include a coffee shop, a playground (if children are involved), or the person’s own home. Conducting an interview on their own terms, and on their own territory, naturally breaks the ice. It also shows you’re interested in their feelings and comfort level, and that can build trust. All of that sets the stage for a better interview.
- Ask open-ended questions. Most of us like to prepare for interviews with a list of questions, and that’s very useful. But think carefully about the questions you ask. It’s better to avoid ones that elicit a short or one-word response. You want long, thoughtful answers. That means open-ended questions. Try starting with “How did you feel when …” or “What was it like to …” kinds of questions. Not only do those often provide better answers, they can lead to other questions you may not have on your list!
- Have a conversation. Yes, you’re conducting an interview. But it doesn’t have to be an interrogation. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Even if you’re not in a coffee shop, pretend that you are. Just start talking, and let the conversation flow organically. You can double check your prepared questions to ensure you got the responses you needed, but conversations are much better ways to engage than punching through a list of items.
- Don’t rely on your prepared questions. You should absolutely prepare questions in advance. But use those as a backup. Try the three tips above first before you pull out the prepared list. Most people are naturally anxious about being interviewed to begin with. Firing off a list of questions doesn’t usually put them at ease. In fact, it often does the opposite. Preparation is terrific — but it’s not how natural conversations evolve.
- Do an activity together. Does the person you’re interviewing like to hike? Volunteer? Bake? Suggest coming along for the ride. This may seem like a strange way to conduct an interview, but it’s actually a terrific technique. It promotes bonding, and bonding promotes trust — that’s key to getting honest, insightful answers that make for powerful stories.
- Establish rapport. When you’re sitting down with someone (or hiking, baking, or volunteering), the natural inclination is to look for common ground. Most people begin to share something about themselves, and you’ll do the same back. This kind of rapport is critical during interviews. You’re essentially telling them, “I want to put you at ease.” So before you begin asking your questions, try to get to know the person you’re interviewing a little better.
- Ask the unexpected. This last tip isn’t about shock value. It’s about getting great responses. Most people tend to get in a groove after a few questions. They start to see where the interview is headed, and they start getting more comfortable with providing answers. It’s great to ask an unexpected question just to get their synapses firing a little more. The answers you get might just be wonderful little nuggets to include in your story. Here’s one example:
I was interviewing a little boy who had a serious illness. He and his father used a nonprofit’s services during medical treatment. Instead of looking at my prepared questions, I took note of the baseball cap the boy was wearing. That led to a conversation about baseball. And then I threw the curveball question: If it could rain anything from the sky during a ball game, what should that be? The little boy was quick to answer: Confetti cake and noodles. I loved that detail so much that it’s how I opened up his story. It helped make it memorable, gave the little boy personality, and endeared him to readers.
Next month in part three of this series: Surprising sources of good stories.