When I talk with non-profit professionals about their storytelling endeavors, I often get asked questions about interviewing someone for their story. Usually folks will ask me how to do story interviews for non-profits, what kind of questions they should ask (and one they should avoid), and tips for getting the best information during the interview. Story interviews for non-profits are a skill you can master. They take a bit of forethought and practice. But it’s absolutely something you can get comfortable and confident doing.
This article will walk you through how I prepare story interviews for non-profits using an interview I did this week with a client’s Executive Director.
Story Interviews for Non-Profits – Why You Need to Have a Conversation and Not Just an Email Exchange
There are many ways to collect stories. I often recommend that non-profits have a system for sourcing story leads. That system may bring in some preliminary information about the story. Sometimes you may even feel that you have enough information to start writing. But wait! An email from a staff member or someone completing your story collection form is just the first step. Your next step is to set up a story interview.
In this age of digital communication, it may be tempting to email someone a few extra follow up questions or just work with what you’ve got. You’re busy. Setting up a 15 or 30 minute story interview may seem like extra work (it is, I won’t bother sugar coating it). But that time you spend having a conversation with someone will generate some of the best information and quotes. And that means you can ultimately write a better story.
Without a doubt some of the best stories and appeals I’ve written are because I took the time to have a conversation with someone. I also think that the first hand experience with their story makes me a better, more passionate writer.
Next, I want to walk you through how I recently prepared for and completed an interview with one of my client’s Executive Director. I hope seeing this process unfold will give you ideas for how to improve your next story interview.
Step 1: Understand the Context
My first step when I prepare for interview is to get a strong understanding of the context. I do this for a couple of reasons. 1) I fully understand the end goal and purpose of the story. 2) I can ask better questions during the story interview. 3) If need be, I can steer the interview if it’s getting off track.
This recent interview I did with an Executive Director was for an upcoming campaign the organization is running. I’m writing all of the fundraising emails for the campaign, some of which will come from the Executive Director. I wanted to ask them some questions about the campaign, and their relationship to it and the organization. My goal with the interview was to see if I could find some strong messaging angles that would integrate the campaign and the Executive Director’s personal story.
Step 2: Develop Questions
I love this part of the story interview process. Getting to mull over some questions ahead of time helps me get excited about the upcoming conversation and feel prepared going into it. I usually ask 5 to 7 questions during the story interview with the intention that I might ask follow ups or dig in if something interesting surfaces.
For the recent interview I did, I prepared 5 questions. The campaign the organization is running is one that they do every year in the fall. My questions to the Executive Director prompted them to reflect on last year’s campaign versus this year’s (what’s change/what hasn’t), what new needs they are seeing emerge in the community, what it means for them to run an organization that helps people in a particular way, and what they wish more people knew about the cause.
My favorite question of these and one I ask in most story interviews is, “What do you wish more people knew about ____?” I find that this question will often get interviewees to focus on the heart of the matter in a way other questions may not.
I cover the ins and outs of crafting great interview questions in The Storytelling Non-Profit Master Class.
If you need some story interview question inspiration, read: 25 Questions to Ask to Get the Story.
Step 3: Conduct the Story Interview
Once you’ve prepped your questions and the pre-arrange time arrives for your story interview, it’s time to get down to business. When I hop on the phone or a Zoom call with someone, here’s how the first few minutes of the call go:
- We introduce ourselves
- I try to make some personal small talk to get to know the interviewee a bit better and get them talking
- I go over some “ground rules” for how the call will go. I usually say that it will be about a 30 minute call. I share that I’ve prepared a few questions to ask but may ask some follow up ones where appropriate. I also tell them that they have the opportunity to veto any questions I ask and that if they don’t feel comfortable they how the power to end the interview. I say that last part because I want people to know they have agency in the situation and that they shouldn’t feel pressured to keep talking if they don’t want to.
- I also mention that I’m going to be talking a lot of notes so if I’m quiet for a minute or not making direct eye contact with them in the camera, it’s because I’m furiously typing on the other end 🙂
There have been some interviews where I’ll also people if I can record them, but lately I’ve just been opting for copious note taking.
Want further reading on conducting interviews? Read: How to Conduct Better Story Interviews.
Step 4: Debrief with Yourself
Debriefing with myself after an interview was a process improvement I made about 10 years ago. I was finding that I would do a story interview but then not circle back to my notes for days or weeks after when I needed them for a project. The problem with this was that it was like seeing everything for the first time and sometimes I just couldn’t make sense of my notes.
What I do now is schedule a 30 minute appointment with myself after a story interview. I use this time to make notes about my notes. Sometimes I write down theme ideas, messaging angles, or highlight really good quotes.
For this recent interview with the Executive Director, I found myself writing about some polished sentences that I thought would work in the emails I now need to write. I’m not sure I’ll use every one of them, but I have a good 6 sentences that are really punchy and could work in the emails. I can also say that doing makes the idea of sitting down to begin writing these emails seem a little less daunting because I have some direction.
The interview I did this week went really well. I got some terrific information that I know will make the fundraising emails shine. Every time I do an interview I’m reminded of the fact that each one is another opportunity to practice and hone my craft. I hope you’ll remember that as you conduct your next story interview. Keep practice, keep improving your process and keep honing your craft.