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Three questions to ask someone to get a great story

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How easy is it for you to find a story to tell?

Whenever I talk to nonprofit professionals about storytelling, the thing that consistently stops many of them from telling stories is finding stories to tell. This is especially true when fundraisers or communicators want to tell stories about clients or beneficiaries.

This is a challenge for a few reasons. First, many storytellers are not in direct contact with beneficiaries of the work, which makes it challenging to know who to talk to for information. Second, larger organizations often suffer from silos, which make collaboration and inter-office communications a challenge. Again, for fundraisers and communicators not doing program delivery, this often means not hearing about great stories. Third, when they do finally find a story to tell, they have a difficult time asking the right questions to get the story. In this post, I’m going to share a solution to this third challenge.

When we sit down to interview a client or beneficiary, it can be tempting to just dive right in and say, “Tell me your story!” The problem with saying this is that it’s a very big, very broad request, which can leave the person your interviewing overwhelmed.

As an interviewer, it’s your job to guide someone through their story so that they tell it well. That in turn means you have a great story to share in organizational communications. Here are three questions that you can use to structure your interview and capture the gems of the story.

Question 1: “What was it like before...”

Before we get into the conflict and resolution of a story, we need to know what it was like before a problem was solved. As a writer or storyteller, you need to be able to set the stage for your audience. In order to do that, you need to have details to share. By asking this question, you will cue the person you are interviewing to share some of those details.

Question 2: “How did it feel when...”

This is my all-time favorite question to ask during an interview. This is a great question to ask when you are trying to understand the emotional experience of a conflict. It will cue someone to think about their feelings at the time. You can also ask this question when someone starts to talk about what their life was like after a problem was solved. How did they feel then? How was that different from before? These are questions that will capture the emotional essence of the story.

Question 3: “What’s next for you?”

I like asking this question at the end of the interview because it will get the person to speak to their hopes for the future. Now that a problem or issue has been solved in this person’s life, what new possibilities exist for them? The answer to this question can often provide you with an inspiring ending for the story.

These three questions are designed to help you get the broad strokes of a story. I always like to come prepared with a handful of questions, but remain open to the possibility that that conversation may go somewhere different and lead to a more interesting story.

Vanessa Chase Lockshin is the President of The Storytelling Non-Profit – a consulting group that helps nonprofit organizations raise more money by telling their stories. She is also the author of the book, The Storytelling Non-Profit: a practical guide to telling stories that raise money and awareness.

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