The Loyalty Letter
|E-news that helps you keep donors connected (and giving)
to your cause.
|Advanced Interviewing Secrets,
for Better Storytelling and Stewardship
It's simple. Ask better interview questions, and you get better answers. Better answers mean better fundraising stories. Better accomplishment reporting. Here's how to get it done...
Today two unlikely experts are going to help you ask better questions. Why?
Because better interview questions mean better answers. Better answers mean better background material. Better fundraising stories. Better accomplishment reporting in your donor newsletters and annual reports.
Happier donors. Higher retention. More donations.
Meet NPR's master interviewer Terry Gross, and a guy so good they call him The Question Man - a Canadian investigative reporter turned journalism professor named John Sawatsky, who in 2006 was brought on board ESPN to overhaul its interviewing tactics. Where relevant I include my own effective interview strategies.
Now without further ado, I give you...
Master Secrets for What You Should (and Should Never)
Do in an Interview:
1. Prepare your questions ahead of time.
I know what you're thinking, Oh come on. This hardly seems an advanced interviewing tactic, Lisa.
But let me tell you...
Not everyone does it. In fact, if I'm not doing the interviewing myself, I will often include question preparation in my project quotes. That's how important they are.
One reason: when you get into an interview it's all too easy to immerse yourself, then you've hung up the phone and realized you never asked how it felt to be homeless at Christmas, for example, and it's a Christmas appeal you're writing. Better to get it right the first time.
Note: Understand that you probably won't ask all the questions you prepare. If you listen deeply, some you'll get to, some you won't. Ticking them off one by one, automaton-style, is not the way to go. (See Tip #5.)
2. Set the ground rules first.
This is vital. NPR's Terry Gross recommends that you let your interviewee 'set the limits on what's private and therefore off-limits.' The best way to do this is to hand control to them from the start - so begin by saying something like, "if there's anything you don't want to answer, or you're uncomfortable with, just let me know." (If you're interviewing an expert, you could even say, "and if there's anything I don't understand, if it's okay with you, I'll speak up. Fair enough?" This puts them in the driver's seat.)
[source for tips 2 and 3: "Interviewing: Tips from a Pro," by The Listening Resource's Susan Eliot.)
3. Violate decorum.
As an interviewer you have a limited amount of time to get the details you need. You also have a kind of implicit latitude to ask questions - intimate questions - that, as NPR's Gross says, "you usually don't ask someone you've just met." Yes, you must respect your interviewee always. But remember: they are there because they want to tell their story; doing so is as beneficial to them as it is to you. Plus, you've already set the ground rules, and they know if it's too close for comfort they can decline to answer - believe me, it rarely happens.
4. Ask open-ended questions, not yes/no questions.
This will get you further in an interview than almost anything. I wrote about open-ended questions here. You can also click here for a free, printable PDF of 44 [now updated to 65] open-ended questions, compiled by yours truly. But in a nutshell, open-ended questions begin with Who, What, When, Where, and the granddaddy of them all, How.
5. Listen deeply. (This means, think.)
An interview with Terry Gross in The Atlantic says, if you are listening, you as the interviewer are 'in position to pick up leads ("Now, that's an intriguing idea, tell us more about..."), to look for interesting tensions, to sum up and give shape to what the subject has said." Or as John Sawatsky says, "Build the interview on answers, not questions."
6. Don't lead the interviewee.
For example, at 37 Signals, there are two excellent Sawatsky examples of this: 'instead of asking Sarah Ferguson, for example, "Is it hard being a duchess?" ask: "What's it like being a duchess?" Instead of asking Ronald Reagan, "Were you scared when you were shot?" ask: "What's it like to be shot?"'
Another source I read put it this way, "endure awkward silences." When an interviewee pauses during an answer, wait... avoid the temptation to fill the silence. Virtually every time, if you let the silence hang, they will fill it by adding more detail to their answer.
8. Stow ego.
It's not about you sounding smart. In fact, if you don't understand something, you should ask for clarification. (To one of the world's top experts on diabetes -- and another time to a virtual 3D surgery guru, I've said, "I don't understand what you mean. Can you please explain how that works?" Both happily complied -- and later sent invaluable support articles, photos and emails.)
9. Stop talking.
Remember, the interviewee is the star here, not you. It's not about you doing all the talking - one of the most common mistakes I see. John Sawatsky has a rule he calls, "Less is more." (Superb example of a "less" question at Tip #6: What's it like to be shot?) If your questions are long, loaded dissertations - or if you interrupt people in mid-sentence to interject your own thoughts - you'll get puny answers.
Which leads us to...
10. Don't ask double-barreled questions.
John Sawatsky explains that by asking two interview questions in one, you give the interviewee the option of choosing - which they will always do. The American Journalism Review offers this must-avoid example: "Whom did you like interviewing most and what's your most impressive interviewing coup?" This gives me the option of choosing the question I most want to answer, instead of compelling me to answer both.
My last tip?
Say thank you. Ask if there's anything else they'd like to add. AND, ask if it's okay for you to get in touch if you have follow-up questions - get email, phone number, etc.
In closing, keep in mind the words of my all-time favorite poet:
"Always the more beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question."
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