The Conversation: Interviewing tips & suggestions

You can match. You can organize. You can have great community partners. But much of the success of your project comes down to one thing: The Stories.

The stories that your storytellers tell and writers capture are the backbone of your project. This section offers tips and tricks on how to capture and write impactful Facing stories. It also shares examples of Facing stories that have worked really well and links to other writing resources.

It All Starts with a Conversation

Writers and storytellers must meet face-to-face at least once. In early projects, we weren’t sticklers about this and it was very obvious what stories were captured by a chat on the phone. The narrators on these stories seemed more distant. Meeting face-to-face is a requirement all writers and storytellers participating in a project must be comfortable with.

Where to meet

It’s best to guide writers and storytellers to meet in a public, neutral location for an initial meeting. Each may want to bring along a friend or family member too if that makes them more comfortable. As the organizers of a project, you should suggest and/or offer locations for storytellers and writers to meet, such as libraries, cafes, or in an office or campus setting.

Keep in mind some conversations can be emotional and very private, and also, since the default setting for all stories is anonymity, some settings may be too public.

Talking with storytellers in their own surroundings can offer a deeper glimpse into your storyteller’s world. We’ve had writers shadow storytellers at work, visit them in their homes, and storytellers who’ve driven writers around town showing them important landmarks in their stories.

Some stories can be captured over a 90-minute chat, but some may take longer. For a Facing Disabilities project we ran, many of the storytellers were not very verbal. So it took more than one meeting.

Remember not everyone has words, but every human has a voice. Sometimes we say more with a smile and a gesture than we could ever say with words.

Kelsey From the storytelling trenches:

During my first meeting with a storyteller for Muncie’s Facing Disabilities Project, I was getting nowhere. Jerold was in his 60s and didn’t remember much about his childhood. He said his parents were nice and that he liked work. That’s about all I could get out of him. I left that first meeting thinking, “I’m running this project and my story is going to be a flop.” I sat down to write Jerold’s story and I just couldn’t hear or feel his voice. To fill in the blanks in Jerold’s story, I interviewed his cousin, his boss at work, I went to work to watch him in action, and even tagged along on a date with Jerold (67) and his 30-something girlfriend. By the time I sat down to write Jerold’s story, I had more than enough material.

You can read Jerold’s story here.

Have a conversation

This isn’t a traditional interview. This is a give and take conversation. You need to try to capture how they think and feel and speak. The most powerful stories are the ones that do NOT read like a feature in the local newspaper. Bring a recorder or use your smartphone’s recording app to capture the conversation, so you can lose yourself in the conversation and not notetaking. Do take some notes, though! Use your notes to capture the storytellers emotions and movements—how they said what they said.

Don’t have a list of prepared questions that you simply power through. Help guide your storyteller’s conversation with your questions. Focus on key moments—when they decided to speak out, when they sought out help, when they overcame an obstacle. Ask them what they felt, saw, and smelled. Drill down into details so you can see through the storyteller’s eyes and walk in their shoes.

In many ways you are employing the methods of a counselor. Kelsey sat down with Jay Zimmerman, a clinical psychologist, to talk about some interviewing techniques.

Your story is only as good as your ability to listen and to ask questions that don’t interrupt but make the conversation flow.

Always end the conversation by having the storyteller sign the Storyteller release form and asking the storyteller if they have any questions for you and walking them through what happens next: you write the story, show them the story for their approval, the story is published online and/or in a book and may be performed on stage.

Also inform the storyteller that their story will be anonymous unless they specifically want to be named. Because the stories are in the first person, the reader will never know who the “I” is unless the storyteller is comfortable revealing their identity.