I’ve written a lot about the principles behind ethical storytelling, how empathy differs from sympathy in storytelling, why exploitative storytelling persists, and how the evolving landscape of lexicon and language influence meaning and marginalization. These topics are great for reflection, but in this article I roll up my sleeves to give you some tangible tips on two of the most critical points of storytelling: interviewing and editing.
Most of my readers are involved in fundraising or marketing; even if you are not directly responsible for interviewing program participants to acquire new stories, I encourage you to approach this article with an open mind, ask questions of your colleagues who do interview, and begin a dialogue to see where your story acquisition process can improve.
I open with a quote we would all do well to remember:
“The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling you can charge admission.” (The Experience Economy, 1999)
Here, author Joseph Pine illustrates the fundamental difference to keep in mind when we interview: that we are not the authors of this person’s story. We are not their “voice,” as I so often hear nonprofits claim to be; we are really their microphone, amplifying their words and experiences. The goal of the interview is, as Amy Costello of Nonprofit Quarterly says, to “establish intimacy and trust,” not to get certain predetermined words or phrases that will fit nicely in a tweet or campaign letter. If our story contributors leave the interview feeling understood, then we have achieved a whole lot. But what does that mean? We can’t force someone to feel understood, nor can we force ourselves to understand. So, what best practices can we actually operationalize in the interview and editing process to ensure we are honoring the gift of another person’s story?
Practical Tips for Before the Interview
1. Select the right contributors: relationship, risk, and opting in
Some organizations work closely with program staff to carefully select those contributors who seem most ready to tell their stories. The goal is to not approach someone whose trauma is too recent or who may experience negative effects from sharing their story. If that is the method used by your organization, I encourage you to make your assessment based on relationship and risk.
Relationship: How long have you known this contributor? How clearly have they historically communicated their needs? Would you be able to follow up with them after they share their story to assess impact?
Risk: How much is at stake if the contributor feels harmed by sharing the story? Could their mental or emotional health be negatively impacted by them sharing (for instance, if they are known to experience suicidal ideation)? Could their current situation (e.g., housing, job, roommates) be negatively impacted by them sharing?
Ideally, you want some balance of high relationship and low risk.
There’s a second path to take. Instead of selecting contributors, could your organization set up a process where potential contributors opt in? Where they can express desire to share their story proactively, without a direct ask. For example, would it be possible to have a sign-up card and box available at a site for contributors to self-select in? Could you include the question “Would you be interested in sharing your experience with our supporters?” on a routine questionnaire so that the question feels like standard info-gathering and not a high-pressured ask.
Creating the right process to minimize the risk of harm to your contributors and ensure they are comfortable sharing their stories is the first step.
2. Share sample questions in advance
Reviewing sample questions in advance of the interview is a way for your contributors to mentally and emotionally prepare their responses, as well as set boundaries in advance. That way, you can minimize the risk of asking inappropriate questions or discussing subjects that would cause harm to the contributor. Reviewing questions establishes respect, much like how sending an agenda in advance of a meeting honors colleagues’ time and expertise.
Note that I have said sample questions, because in reality, your questions are likely to change in the actual interview. If you are staying present in the interview and letting the contributor take the lead (see tip 5), then your questions will naturally evolve to respond to them in the moment.
3. Begin the Consent Process before the interview
The Media Consent Form I provide has two parts: one offers background on the use of the story and their rights and one details permissions and conditions. More and more, we need to understand consent as a process, not a form. We want the contributor to have a full understanding of the uses of their story and be able to have time to reflect, ask questions, and make an informed decision. It’s hard to have that all happen in the span of a couple of minutes. If you are able to share the consent form, past story examples, and interview questions in advance, the contributor will have more time to absorb the information and make a decision.
Practical Tips for During the Interview
4. Involve someone whom the contributor knows and trusts
Since marketing and fundraising staff are often removed from program operations, an important trust-building measure is to make sure that you involve a person from your organization who is already known and trusted by the contributor. This could be a case manager, program officer, teacher, or other staff member of your organization with whom the contributor has some kind of rapport. I recommend this person be present at the interview, but if this is not possible, they should at least facilitate the introduction between you and the contributor and recommend another colleague who can sit in on the interview. This puts the contributor at ease. At least one person they know is in the room, or on the call, so it removes some of the awkwardness of participating in a meeting of all strangers.
5. Try to record the conversation or get a scribe
“We hear with our ear but listen with our whole bodies.”
The wise sage who made that remark was Elmo from Sesame Street. And he’s right.
If you are frantically scribbling notes on a clipboard or pausing every few seconds to type on your laptop, you are not listening with your whole body. There is a reason journalists record interviews: not just to have accurate documentation of what was said. but so they can be fully present and attuned to the contributor. Some studies have shown that as much as 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, so it is important that you free your hands and eyes to pay close attention to things like the tone of words, the silence between sentences, and the body language of the contributor (Mehrabian, 1967).
6. Continue the Consent Process
This is the second part of the consent process. Ideally, the contributor already knows who you are, why you are there, and what you hope to achieve in the interview, but this is the time to confirm that knowledge. You will again go over these points to ensure they have an accurate understanding of the process and expectations and to clarify remaining questions. This is the time they sign the actual consent form, or if they have done that in advance, you would verbally confirm their consent.
7. Show some examples of previous work and ask for feedback
I have written extensively about the need to get feedback from our contributors, and one of the most sustainable ways to operationalize that is in the interview process. Arrive at the interview with a few examples of previous stories that were shared in campaign form. Ideally you would have a variety of media to share: campaign letters, copies of social media posts, a blog article, etc. If this is an in-person interview, bring hard copies. If this is a remote meeting or phone call, see if you can send some examples digitally in advance or leave with them an on-site program officer to distribute. Basically, you want the contributor to take a look at some of your previous campaigns and give feedback.
This serves three purposes:
First, the contributor will have a better understanding of the context in which their story is being told, so they will likely be able to tell you a better story.
Second, they will be able to express with more specificity how they want to be portrayed. For instance, if they see a photo of someone crying, they might say, “I don’t want to look like that,” and that would allow you to ask follow-up questions around how they do want to be portrayed. As I always caution with the Platinum Rule: if you want to treat others the way they want to be treated, you can’t know how they want to be treated unless they tell you. Their feedback is of vital importance to ensure you are portraying the issue with authenticity and the people impacted by it with dignity.
Third, your contributor will feel more valued and empowered by the act of being asked for their opinion or advice. Recall a time when someone asked for your advice—weren’t you flattered? Being asked for advice means that the asker views us in high regard, that our opinions and perspectives have value. Asking for feedback boosts the contributor’s esteem and increases the possibility that they will be coming from an empowered place when telling their story.
Practical Tips for After the Interview
8. Debrief with the colleague
If you have followed my advice in tip 4 and involved a colleague the contributor trusts, you will want to leverage this person’s experience by debriefing the interview with them. That partner, someone on your program team, will have more knowledge of the program and of the contributor and could supplement your interview with additional context or cultural insight. Also, that same person can provide you feedback on the interview process and you as an interviewer (see tip 10). Their feedback and perspective could serve to enhance your own skills as an interviewer and increase your effectiveness in interviewing contributors in the future.
9. Follow up with the contributor
Some days after the interview, someone on staff should follow up with the contributor to see how they are doing. How are they feeling now that the interview has concluded? Do they have any regrets about the information they shared? Is there anything further they would like to add or correct, now that time has passed? This is especially important if your program participants have experienced trauma. We cannot know or assume the impact and emotional labor that sharing their story has on the person unless we ask them. Don’t let more than a week go by without checking in—this touchpoint helps you understand the effects of storytelling on your contributors as well as demonstrates to them the two-way nature of this relationship.
10. Show the edited article to get feedback
After the interview, your article will go through your editorial process to get transformed into a story you can share with your audiences. This stage of the process can be truly ridden with disasters where a story can be appropriated into something the contributor never intended. My article on how to cultivate equity in your editorial process goes into detail about this, but the important thing for tip 10 is that you are showing the product in long form (like a campaign letter or blog post) to the contributor to ask the following:
- Do you still hear your own voice in this story?
- Is there anything you don’t like or want to change about it?
Again, this is an important part of building trust, credibility, and rapport with your story contributors.