Be a Good Human
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In the last issue of this newsletter, we talked about story questions. So this time, I thought I'd talk about the story question's BFF, emotion questions.
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As narrative storytellers, we're supposed to work our way up to the big reveal. But in this case, my big takeaway is so important...I'm just going to start with it.

If you want to get good emotion, remember to be a good human.

Look, we're asking people dig deep and share the details of their experiences -- and the messy and often complicated emotions they felt at the time. Sometimes, we're asking them to relive their trauma.

In my experience, people don't agree to these kinds of interviews unless they're ready to talk. But still, it's not always easy. Most people don't go around sharing their emotional truth to strangers they just met.

There are some question formulas that can help, and I'll get to those. But none of them will work if you haven't established yourself as a good human. You can ask and ask and ask all you want, but you're not going to get at anything below the surface.

But if you've established yourself as someone who truly wants to understand another person's experience, you might not even need to ask.

Here's an example.

Back in 2016, I was interviewing the father of a young boy who had died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a heartbreaking story. The father had promised his son that they'd visit all 30 MLB ballparks together. So after the son died, the father set out with his younger son to finish the journey.

The conditions for the interview weren't ideal. I was in Boston. The father was in Florida. So we were doing the interview remotely. We had arranged for the father to go into a studio, so that at least the connection would be crisp. But the studio was having trouble with their ISDN lines (yes, those were still a thing in 2016) and we had to do a tape sync over a scratchy and sometimes static-filled phone line.

At one point, the father just broke down. And because the phone line was so bad, I wasn't sure what was happening. Was he crying? Had he just stopped talking?

I waited a few moments, and I then said the only thing that came into my mind. I said, "Wow. That must have been so hard."

That launched the father into another crying jag. But soon, he pulled himself out of it and told me the most beautiful story about a Texas Rangers fan who befriended him during a game. By the end of the call, we were both feeling optimistic and ready to face the future.

Afterwards, one of my coworkers congratulated me on asking that "follow-up" question. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. Because at that moment, I hadn't been thinking about my story or what I still needed to get on tape. I was speaking with a person who was hurting, and I wanted to be there for them. That was it.

So, yeah, I'm gonna say it again, in bolder print.
If you want to get good emotion, remember to be a good human.
But, I promised you emotion questions, so let's get to them. Because for every anecdote you collect for your story, you're gonna want to collect an emotion or "moment of reflection" to go with it. And it really gets awkward to just keep asking, "How did that make you feel?"

Be Like Ira

Okay, these days, everyone uses this question. But I always think of it as an Ira Glass original. It's almost like asking "How did that make you feel?" But somehow, it's less awkward and intrusive...
"What did you make of that?"
Incidentally, one of my former coworkers once used this question during a discussion with his girlfriend. He said it led to a fruitful and productive conversation that he's not sure he would have been able to have otherwise. There's something about the openness of this question that allows the conversation to go to unexpected places.

Dig for Dialog

Remember when I said that dialog was narrative gold? Internal dialog is just as good, if not better.
"Describe the debate going on in your head at that moment – what was one side saying? What was the other side saying?"
We all have voices in our head. Might as well try to take advantage.

Go beyond the one-note answer.

Sometimes it won't be difficult to guess what a person is feeling. They'll be wearing their emotions on their sleeve. But still, you want to dig deeper. That's when it's a good idea to let the person know that you've heard them, but you still want to learn more.
"You say that you were confused...tell me more about that."

"You were clearly sad, but were you also angry?"
Suggest a couple of options.

I'm usually not a fan of either/or questions. Why box someone into a limited number of possibilities? Wouldn't it be better to just allow them them to share their actual experience?

But, this is a device that can come in handy when you're having trouble getting someone to respond in an emotional way.

And if you want proof that it can work, my best example is this exchange from TAL.
Anything Can Be Anything, This American Life

Ben Calhoun: When you were having that experience, what was the feeling that you had? Like, outrage, anger? Was it irritation? Was it worry?

Matt Osborne: Deep foreboding. Deep foreboding, deep foreboding. And the closer we got to the election, the more I felt like something was wrong.
Ben Calhoun didn't suggest "deep foreboding" as an option. His subject came up with it on his own. But by suggesting some options, Ben allowed space for the subject to consider what he had actually felt.

Get Physical

When Snap Judgment's Anna Sussman wants to get someone talking about emotion, she asks them how that emotion their body.
"Where did you feel that in your body? Was it in your neck? In your jaw?"
(This is totally a technique I stole from a workshop put on by the producers of Snap Judgment. And while you'll never hear this question being asked, you'll often hear the answer.)


Seriously. Stop looking at the questions you've written on the page. Listen to what your subject is saying to you. Try to put yourself in their shoes. What would you -- the interviewer -- have felt at that moment?
"Wow, that sounds like it was difficult…"

"I think that would have really frightened me. Were you scared?"
Once, when I was interviewing the father of an athlete who had committed suicide, I found myself saying, "I can't imagine." The father responded quickly, sounding angry and flustered. I was worried I had made a mistake.

"No, you can't imagine," he said. "No one can. That's what makes it so hard."

And then he told me about how his friends and coworkers had been supportive and understanding for a while. But after about six months, they expected him to get over it. He felt like he couldn't talk about what had happened with anyone. He told me that he felt like he was all alone.

That moment didn't become part of my story, but it informed the way I approached the piece. In the end, I was glad that I had allowed myself to have a real, human reaction.

And just one more thought…

Don't make it weird.

Asking people about their emotions might feel awkward to you. It might feel intrusive. But this is your job. You've chosen to do this. And the person you're interviewing has agreed to answer. You want to make it as easy on them as possible, so don't burden them with your own doubts and insecurities.

Let them know at the beginning of the interview that they can stop you if they need to. And then take a deep breath and ask your questions in a calm and straightforward way. Avoid euphemisms. Don't continuously apologize. If you can't talk about this, how do you expect your subject to be able to?

Oh, and it's not a bad idea to let people know when you need details and when you don't. I once told a sexual assault survivor that she did not need to recount the graphic details of her assault for me. I had read her account. I believed her. And none of the details were things that I could put on the air on National Public Radio. We still had to work through some difficult moments, but there was no need to put her through unnecessary trauma.

Whew. Are we done with the sad stuff now?

I apologize. I realize that a lot of these examples are real downers. And that's becasue it's difficult to talk about negative emotions. Happiness is easy. People often share their joy completely unprompted.

But even when someone's sharing their joy, don't be afraid to dig deeper. Human beings are full of complicated, jumbled, conflicting emotions. And the closer you can get to that truth, the more authentic and relatable your story is going to be.

I have no idea what I'm going to share next time. Lots of people are asking for more on story structure. Is it story structure time? Hit reply and let me know what you'd like to learn more about.

Or...just let me know how this issue made you feel. I'm always open to sharing some good, emotional truths.