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10 Interview Tips That Lead to Better Storytelling

Lori Halley  15 June 2010  10 comments

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.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 15 June 2010 at 7:59 AM


  • Dave Lutz said:

    Tuesday, 15 June 2010 at 6:55 AM

    Great post! I love reading and learning about storytelling. Recently I read an awesome book by Don Miller - A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I highly recommend it for personal improvement, leadership and sharpening one's knowledge and expertise for more effective storytelling.

  • Matt Friedman said:

    Tuesday, 15 June 2010 at 7:05 AM

    Great post, I agree with all of these tips. The open-ended, emotional questions definitely get you honest and heartfelt quotes. As far as note-taking, I use a tape recorder, so I take very few notes during the interview and can focus on what the person's saying. And I always let them review the finished story - very few make changes but they appreciate the option.

  • Bryan Formhals said:

    Tuesday, 15 June 2010 at 8:13 AM

    I think sometimes reframing it as a 'conversation' as a opposed to an interview can be beneficial too.

    On the surface, I think people make an assumption that interviews are rather easy, but as I learned from my journalism days, I can say, they are extremely difficult.  Unfortunately, I see way too many fluff interviews on blogs these days.

    So I hope people read these tips!  Thanks for sharing.

  • Marlene Oliveira said:

    Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 12:48 PM

    Excellent and practical post, Kivi. I totally agree with and use the same process.

    I do have to say that while I do work to retain control of the conversation, a couple of seemingly irrelevant stories turned out to be gems. For example, one profilee was going on about her great-grandmother and I was about to cut it short when I realized that it was a powerful example of the tenacity that runs in her family: the same tenacity was part of her excellent track record as a volunteer and donor.

    As for my interview questions, I've shared them here: http://www.moflow.ca/blog/entry/writing-donor-and-volunteer-profiles-the-interview

  • Susan Coates said:

    Thursday, 15 July 2010 at 12:48 PM

    Great article.  I've posted to my blog . . . with all accolades obviously) going to you and Wild Apricot.  I'm a huge support of storytelling and am always looking for this kind of information.  Perhaps I can add you to my speakers bureau at www.TheSpeakerStudio.com.

  • Lisa Miller said:

    Friday, 16 July 2010 at 9:51 AM

    Cheers to both Rebecca and Kivi for posting this helpful articles. Kivi provides some fundamental steps for weaving an actual story rather than a dry and uninspired profile article.  It was a good reminder to me and I have to say that I love the 10 questions. There were some that I had never considered before - but I'll be putting them to use now.

    BTW - I just submitted this article to Digg.  The link is included in "Your URL"

  • interview preparation said:

    Tuesday, 07 June 2011 at 3:47 PM

    That would be the best tip's I could ever rely on.

    Be sure to keep this in my mind.

  • plumbing said:

    Saturday, 11 June 2011 at 3:57 PM

    So true!

    There has been a time that I've done this and I must tell you it is really embarrassing.

  • How To Interview said:

    Friday, 07 October 2011 at 1:19 AM
    Great post, personal favorite was #4.

    Lots of help from here, Thank you!
  • interview coaching said:

    Friday, 23 December 2011 at 7:33 AM
    An interview gives you the opportunity to showcase your qualifications to an employer, so it pays to be well prepared.
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