Kivi Leroux Miller, author of The Nonprofit Marketing Guide: High-Impact, Low-Cost Ways to Build Support for Your Good Cause, believes that storytelling is one of the most effective yet underused marketing tactics for nonprofits. She devoted a whole chapter to storytelling in her new book, and provides ten tips for better interviews in this guest post.
You know by now that telling stories about the work you do and the people you serve is a great way to educate and inspire your supporters about your cause. But you can't write a good story without getting your facts straight and drawing some good quotes out of the people you are featuring. Use these ten tips to
1. Don’t ask for information you can easily get elsewhere. Do your homework. Don’t ask your board chair where she works or what her title is. Don’t ask a donor how much he has given your organization. You should already have that information. It’s OK to ask people to confirm the spelling of their names or if the total amount donated over several years sounds right to them, but this should be presented as quick fact-checking, not as part of the interview.
2. Don’t fall into Tedious Bio Syndrome. It’s the narrative equivalent of a résumé. Or worse, you start when they were born. Profiles that start that way are total snoozers and so are the interviews themselves.
3. Be flexible about the format. You can get the information you need whether you conduct the interview in person, over the phone, or via email. I find it’s actually easier to take good notes while interviewing over the phone, rather than in person, because I don’t have to worry about maintaining eye contact, and I can type much faster than I can write. People who are a bit nervous about being interviewed often prefer email, because it gives them time to mull over their answers.
4. Prepare a list of questions, but be willing to stray from it. Come up with some good questions to get the conversation going, but don’t be afraid to ask new questions or take the interview in a different direction, as long as you are getting good details and quotes. Listen for intriguing details or good sound bites and follow them. Here are some questions I use.
5. Ask open-ended questions that contain “emotional” words. Fact-filled profiles simply aren’t as interesting as those full of feeling and emotion. To get your subject to provide you with good anecdotes and quotes, ask questions that are variations on “How did that make you feel?” Try questions like “What has surprised you most about . . . ?,” “What upsets you most about . . . ?,” and “What do you remember most about . . .”
6. Don’t be a gushing fan. It’s fine if you admire the person you are talking to, but don’t interview them as a fan. You’ll end up writing the worst kind of profile: the Obvious Kiss Up. Be nice to your VIPs, but don’t overdo it.
7. If you are writing the story with a specific purpose in mind, ask some leading questions. For example, if you are profiling Mrs. Smith because she put your nonprofit in her will, and you want to encourage others to do the same, you need to ask Mrs. Smith some leading questions to elicit the right kind of quotes. For example, you might ask, “Why did you select our nonprofit specifically when you could have left your gift to any group?” and “How did you feel after you made the decision?” Asking donors about the kind of legacy they want to leave behind can also work well.
8. Don’t go astray with entertaining but irrelevant stories. Sometimes you’ll interview someone who loves to talk and tell you funny stories about all of their friends. While it might be a very entertaining conversation for both of you, you will end up with little that you can use in your profile. Warming up to each other with stories about crazy adventures abroad are fine, but then steer the conversation back to the subject of the profile.
9. Give the interviewee control over the content. This is not hard news or “gotcha” journalism. You are profiling people because you care about them and because they care about your cause. Ask if your profile subject would like to see the story you write before it is published (most will say yes). Give them a few days to get back to you with any changes they feel are important. This ensures not only that you have your facts straight, but that your supporters are pleased with the way they are portrayed in your communications.
10. Follow up within a few days with any additional questions. Don’t wait too long after your original interview to write the profile. That way you can quickly follow up with additional questions while the conversation is still fresh in both of your minds.
Most good stories start with good interviews. What are some of your favorite interview questions when writing nonprofit stories?
For more advice on nonprofit storytelling from Kivi, get a copy of The Nonprofit Marketing Guide: High-Impact, Low-Cost Ways to Build Support for Your Good Cause or visit her Nonprofit Communications Blog.