“In 2011, I stepped on a landmine, my legs were blown off, a helicopter came and picked me up. I only just survived.”
This is photographer Giles Duley during an interview with Rach Allen. He’s demonstrating an important distinction in storytelling.
“That is my ‘narrative’,” he says. “But it’s not my ‘story’. My story is something more subtle.”
For Giles, the ‘story’ might be found in the moment after he was blown up, when he looked up at a crisp blue sky and heard birds singing. “It’s intimate detail,” he says. What you’re aiming for is something that transports you into that person’s life for a moment. Something that gives insight into who they are. Ideally, it’s something you can imagine experiencing yourself. That, Giles says, is how we connect with other people.
Making an emotional connection
Giles tells powerful stories through photographs. But the principle applies whether you’re working with written words, audio or video. Your audience needs to be able to make an emotional connection with the person in the story – human to human.
Emotions stay in our memory longer than facts. It’s just the way our brains are wired. According to neuroscientists, when we see something emotive our brain interprets it more vividly and stores it with that greater clarity.
So, when you’re storytelling for your charity, how can you get people to share the emotional details of their ‘story’ – as well as the practical details of their ‘narrative’?
For some people, it’ll be instinctive. They’ll naturally talk about how they feel. For others, this can be uncomfortable. That’s where your interview techniques come in.
Interview tips for better storytelling
- Help your interviewee prepare. Get in touch ahead of the interview to introduce yourself. Tell them a bit about what you’re going to ask them and why. If the person you’re talking to has experienced something traumatic, it’s vital you make sure they’re feeling robust enough to take part in an interview.
- Remind them how important they are. Explain the difference personal stories can make – both to your charity and other people affected by the issues you’re tackling.
- Share a bit about yourself. Getting to know each other will help your interviewee feel more comfortable and ready to talk openly.
- Prepare your questions carefully. Make sure you’re asking ‘open questions’ that won’t lead to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.
- Ask questions that steer the tone from facts to emotions. What were you feeling at the time? How does it feel looking back on it now? You can show that’s it’s ok to talk about emotions by mentioning them in your questions. That sounds really frightening. Were you scared?
- Ask for details that set a scene, things a reader can identify and connect with. Do you remember what the weather was like? What could you see from the window? If you’re interviewing someone who’s experienced something traumatic, tread carefully here. Keep checking in to make sure they’re comfortable recalling their experience.
- Allow plenty of time. If the interview is going off on a tangent, let it. That’s often when you get to the real story. Equally, the most interesting part of the interview might come when you’re wrapping up. People sometimes relax more towards the end and find it easier to open up.
- Avoid the temptation to fill silence. Your interviewee needs some space to respond. Show them you’re listening – use eye contact and body language or sounds if you’re on the phone.
- Don’t forget about facts. If the purpose of your story is to show how your charity’s services can help people, you’ll need to find out some facts. How did they hear about the service? How long did they use it for? Remember, you’ll need some narrative detail to anchor your story. While this is secondary to the emotional connection you’re aiming for, it’s still important.
- End positively. When you’ve asked all your questions, give interviewees a chance to talk about anything else that’s important to them. Make sure they’re feeling ok when you finish the interview. Allow some time to chat about the weather or what they’re doing at the weekend before you leave them.
Need some help with your charity’s interviewing or storytelling? Get in touch.