Last fall, I was in Chicago for the Third Coast Audio Conference, an annual gathering of international audio storytellers working in radio and podcasts. Having been to a few marketing conferences in previous years where content craft took a backseat to discussion of data and strategy, I wanted to meet with people who were more interested in how storymaking happens.

Our present moment shows the importance of stories. When they’re told authentically and with attention to detail, they have the power to change our minds and influence our actions.

As marketers, telling stories for our clients is at the heart of the job. It starts with making sure that the stories we’re telling are personal, powerful, and true.

But to tell those kinds of stories, you frequently need to start with an interview or two.

Big Pauses Have Power

The very first session reminded me of the patience—and courage—that can be required to ask people questions and listen to their answers.

Janey Williams’ podcast This Happened consists of interviews with her own friends and family as she tries to get to the bottom of some serious questions involving a personal trauma. (Trigger warning: this material concerns the story of a sexual assault.) After Williams was raped by her best friend, Matthew, how did nearly everyone she cared about come to either dismiss or even deny the assault?

It’s a remarkable and wrenching story, made all the more powerful by Williams’ interviewing talent. She asks very open questions and lets her subjects tell their distorted versions of the story—only very occasionally jumping in to redirect or challenge them.

In her remarks to the conference, Williams talked about the long answers and long pauses she left space for during the interviews—and about her hope that in those big spaces listeners might be able to detect the silent currents of dismissal and denial that underly rape culture.

The Answer Is the Child of the Question

Even when the story isn’t her own, the interviewer still has the responsibility of figuring out what the story is. In her talk, “Start from the Beginning,” Karen Duffin, a producer for Planet Money (and before that, This American Life), shared her insights and techniques for interviewing with narrative in mind. (You can hear her entire talk as part of Third Coast’s 2019 Pocket Conference.)

A good interview starts with a good plan, Duffin explained. And that plan is accomplished through thoughtfully designed questions. “The answer is the child of your question,” Duffin said. “What are you giving them—to bounce off of—to give you a good answer?”

To know the kinds of questions you should ask, you need to have some idea of the story you think you’re telling.

  • What’s the big idea?
  • Where does that idea show up, concretely, in the story?
  • What do people who don’t know the story need to know for clarity?
  • What are the stakes?

By stakes, Duffin means a bit more than the win-or-lose proposition of the story, but rather the human desires, struggles, and sacrifices that the audience can identify with. What do the people in the story want? What stands in the way? What has to be given up?

Going into the interview, you need to prepare the questions that you believe may elicit those elements of story.

Be a Human Being

Not that great questions necessarily guarantee a great interview. As an interviewer, you’re dependent on your interviewees to come through with the story. But especially in the early stages of the interview, you can try to prepare the person to do so.

During the very beginning of the interview, Duffin is thinking about setting the tone. “In a narrative interview, you’re asking them to be open and expressive,” Duffin said. “It’s your job to help them feel safe, and to help them know where they are and what they’re doing. You’re asking them to be human, so you should be a human as well.”

A little chit-chat or small talk at the beginning gives you a chance to model a conversational tone and show the person it’s okay for them to relax and be themselves. It’s also a good idea to invite them to ask you, the interviewer, any questions they may have about how this works or what it’s all about.

“An interview is a huge power imbalance,” Duffin said. “They are trusting you with their story and hoping that you will do something good with it.” It’s also okay to give a little direction about the kind of story you’re trying to tell and how you think this interview may fit into that. “They are not professional talkers, usually, and so they want to know why you’re there and what you want from them.”

Look Out for New Angles

Throughout the interview, keep some of your attention focused on whether you’re actually getting the story elements you need. Though you can always come back to your carefully designed questions, if they don’t seem to be getting you the kind of story elements you need, you may need to adapt on the fly.

As she proceeds through an interview, Duffin explained, she is always looking for opportunities she calls “side doors,” especially if the person is having trouble being expressive or giving her answers that come across a little cliché.

Side door questions are an opportunity to jar the person out of the thematic rut they may be in and let them approach the story from a fresh angle. It’s also a great tactic for regaining control of an interview where the person may simply be talking far too much—or far too little.

Trust the Process

Finally, echoing Janey Williams, Duffin said that after asking a difficult question you should remember to give the person lots of time and space to answer. “When you ask a hard question, you have to just shut up sometimes and let them deal with the quiet space. Because eventually they’re going to come out with something, especially if you’re in a confrontational interview and you need them to come back at you.”

In a marketing interview, conversations are rarely confrontational or difficult, but the idea of leaving space has another virtue: letting the process play itself out.

It’s easier to work with a little extra space around answers you waited for, rather than compensate for answers that you didn’t get simply because you were rushing. So, as much as you can, trust the process, and take your time. After all, it’s the person being interviewed who is doing you the favor.

Image: Christina Morillo // StockSnap