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by Janet Ervin

Our July 24 episode of What’s Next featured a panel of veteran journalists and storytellers sharing their best advice for crafting compelling, empathetic content. If you missed the dynamic discussion, we made it available for download here. Our panelists included Ju-Don Marshall of WFAE; Tommy Tomlinson, local author and journalist; and Alicia Bell of the Free Press.

Besides sharing their universal love of newspapers (me too!), Ju-Don, Alicia and Tommy shared tons of great advice and wisdom about the ways they respectfully and authentically tell stories. Much of the conversation focused on the need for storytellers to ask better – or different – questions. Here is the advice they left us:

Watch your wording.
“Never ask yes or no questions.” This was Ju-Don’s advice – but borrowed from Tommy from their newsroom days at the Charlotte Observer! “You should always listen more than you talk,” she said. “Don’t come with a narrative and don’t rush through someone’s answer to get to the next question. Let them own their story and let them own how they share it with you.”

It’s also important to be mindful of the way you word questions. For example, a writer might ask ‘What was it like to grow up poor?’ But for many story subjects, they may not perceive themselves as growing up poor. Or they may not want to be labelled. You get an entirely different, richer conversation if you ask, ‘What was it like for you to grow up?’ and let the conversation move from there.

Approach interviews as a conversation – not an interrogation.
Early in his journalism days, Tommy learned to write the list of questions he wanted to ask down – then to fold that piece of paper and put it in his pocket. “If you come with a list of questions on a sheet of paper and rattle them off and not pay attention because you’re worried about your next question, you’re going to miss something great,” he said. If you’re approaching interviews as a conversation, you’re going to be able to read the tone and body language and develop a rapport that will lead to a more authentic story.

Ask people what they would like readers to know.
This helps prevent bias from leading the conversation. As nonprofit storytellers, the worst thing we can do is come to an interview with our story already written, looking for characters to fit our narrative. Asking your interviewee what they want people to know places them in control of their own story and helps you catch subtext you might have missed. Tommy always ends his interviews by asking, “Is there something I haven’t asked you that I should have?” During our discussion last Friday, he shared that, “what that person has been expecting you to ask them may be something you haven’t thought about and it may be the key to the whole story.”

Mind the knowledge gap.
Alicia seconded Tommy’s advice and suggested pairing that inquisitive approach with an understanding of the knowledge gaps of your audience. “For the folks you need to move to have impact – figure out what their information needs are. Because if you need to move them to have impact, the stories need to be directly connected so you can win and have the greatest impact.” These tips and tricks meets the needs of everyone – they offer meaningful, respectful ways to share the stories of those you serve, while also creating motivating, impactful action opportunities for donors, volunteers and other constituents.

It turns out that great storytelling often isn’t about the story itself – it’s about the questions you ask and the way you capture the narrative. Download the episode to learn more about the power of storytelling and hear all of our panelists’ expert tips for writing more authentic, impactful stories.