You’ve finally found a great story within your organization that you can’t wait to share with your donors. Maybe it’s a story about a client that your organization has helped or a donor who has a special connection to your cause. Whatever the story may be, you’re jazzed about it and are eagerly awaiting the interview you have set up with the person.
The interview arrives. You sit across the table from the person whose story you want to collect. Your notebook is out, pen in hand and a recorder charged – you are the spitting image of preparedness!
After the small talk and rapport building you are ready to dive into the interview and you know you’re first question will start things off strong.
“So, tell me your story!” you say.
Your interviewee starts to get a deer in the headlights look on their face and they start to tell you bits and pieces. But none of it’s making sense to you and you start to wonder if this was such a good start after all. As you look at your notes, you start to wonder if this was really that great of a story after all. Maybe this one is a wash.
A Question to NOT Ask
In my experience of working with people on their stories, leading your interview with “So, tell me your story,” can be the kiss of death question
It’s broad. It’s vague. Frankly, it’s overwhelming for the person you are interviewing.
While we can be good intentioned when we ask the question, the problem is that it is too big of a question for most people to feel comfortable answering. It’s the equivalent of the classic job interview question, “Tell us about yourself.” If you’re not prepared for that question it can very easily go awry. Let me give you a personal example of what I mean.
When I meet people for the first time and they hear about the work that I do, they will often ask me, “So, what’s your story?” Many of them like to ask me that because they think they are being clever or funny, which is true. Sure, I have lots of ways that I can answer this question. I could tell them about how I started my business at 24. I could tell them about moving to Canada changed the course my life. I could tell them about my own process of personal liberation through storytelling. My point is that there are so many things I could tell them. But I often feel like I’m throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. If someone wanted to get to know me on a deeper level, they would be much better off asking me a specific question because I would probably have a better story to tell.
When someone is asked to tell their story during an interview, so much of what they chose to share correlates with the questions they are asked. In other words, they take a cue from their interviewer. When you are in this role, it is important to think carefully about the questions you plan to ask and how those questions might affect the story you hear.
A Better Approach to Story Interviewing
Instead of asking the one, broad question to coax the story out from your interviewee, it’s better to approach the interview as a conversation. It’s a conversation where you’re getting to know someone. Just as you would with a new personal acquaintance or friend, you ask them a number of questions while engaging in conversation to show that you are interested in what they have to say. You listen to what they say and respond accordingly. This requires good listening skills, emotional intelligence, and empathy.
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t prepare questions for your interview ahead of time. I would still advise you to have 5 to 7 questions written down. Just be open to the possibility of asking other questions and following the conversation wherever it may go.
Sample Story Interview Questions for a Program Staff Member for a Story
Let’s say you wanted to interview a program staff member about a program that they run and to collect a story about someone who has accessed it. Instead of asking them to tell you a story about someone in the program, here are 4 alternative questions to ask.
Question #1 Tell me about what problem this program/service solves?
Question #2 Can you tell me about a specific person who has used this program?
Question #3 What was their life like before they began working with you?
Question #4 Do you remember the first time you met them? What was their emotional state like?
Question #5 Now that they’ve gone through this program, what’s their life like? What their outlook for the future?
As you can see in these questions, they are arranged so that they help coach the interviewee to share their stories. They provide clear direction, which is essential for building confidence and comfort in an interview. Additional they allow you to get a sense of the problem a program solves and a specific example of the problem solving in action.
One Final Story Interview Question
As an interview is wrapping up, I do my best to make sure it was pleasant, meaningful experience for the person I interviewed. I like to ask two final questions, which often lead to very interesting responses.
First, I like to ask – Is there a question that I did not ask you that I should have asked? I have had some really interesting responses to this question from people. They, of course, know their story much better than I do and they know what the most interesting parts are. Sometimes the question they suggest will lead to those parts of the story.
Second, I like to ask – Is there anything I can do for you? I believe that having someone share their story with me is an immense privilege and honor. It’s a gift, really. I like to ask if there’s anything I can do for them as a gesture of reciprocity.
Interviewing can be a tough part of collecting stories. What have you struggled with when interviewing people for their stories? Do you have any favorite questions that you like to ask during interviews? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!
Leave a comment below with your thoughts!
Linda Grigg says
Thanks, Vanessa. I also ask the “anything else you want to add?” question, but I also have another wrap-up question I sometimes use. Let me give you some context first. The organisation I work for in New Zealand has a number of government contracts that pay for us to provide social services for families. However we also have a small group of mainly retired-age people who contribute financially to our work too. Their support is critical as, like almost all social service organisations, we do much more work with more people than our contracts ever cover. So, I always like to tell client interviewees of the contribution that these individuals make in helping us to provide free programmes and services like the one(s) the interviewee has accessed. I think it is important for them to know there are people in our community who really care about family well-being, i.e. it’s about people helping people, and not just faceless government agencies. I explain that we like to be able to show those donors the difference they are making, which is one reason why we share clients’ stories (with the clients’ permission, of course!). I then ask the question, “If I could bring in one of those donors in and sit them down with you now, what would you say to them, to reassure them that their support is making a difference?” I only do this when, in the interview, the client has strongly expressed how their journey with us has positively impacted them and their family. Even so, this question throws some people a bit and they don’t really know what they would say. However others can respond quite readily. Those words are gold because they are straight from the heart, and it is our pleasure to then be able to relay the client’s sincere thanks, in their own words, to donors. This must mean so much more to them than we as an organisation (in essence, a 3rd party) saying “Thanks, you are making a difference”.
Vanessa Chase Lockshin says
Linda – thank you so much for this thoughtful response! I loved reading about your approach to story interview questions and your question is terrific! I image that you get some really interesting responses to it that are great to share with donors.