Ask Questions, Get Stories
Hello friends,

The last time I sent out one of these newsletters, I was a bit worried that I was getting too geeky. Never fear. Apparently, y'all enjoy geeking out over story. I know I sure do!

So, there is one thing that irks my story geek sensibilities more than anything else. I've mentioned it before. But I think it deserves it's own blog post.

Never, ever, ever ask your interview subject to rephrase the question as part of the answer.

There. I said it. It's my line in the sand, and I'm sticking to it.
Many naturally occuring lines in sand.
I thought it would be easy to find a photo of a single line drawn in the sand. I was wrong. But the above photo of many naturally occurring lines in sand comes from Chris Barbalis on Unsplash.
Once you start listening for it, you will hear this lazy, unartful technique in all sorts of high-budget documentaries and podcasts.

And let me be clear.

It's lazy.

And un-artful.

And it sounds like crap.

Because people say awkward things like, "The reason why I think climate change is important is…"

Or... "The day I learned I was going to be a grandmother began when…"

People don't talk like this. In normal, everyday conversation, they do not rephrase the question as part of the answer.

But also…

1. You're making your story subject do your work for you. That's just bad form. You want to remove as much of the burden from your subject as you possibly can. That's how you get the really good stuff.

2. If someone rephrases the question as part of the answer, they're giving away the end of the story at the beginning. So much for trying to build tension...

Okay, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you can just cut out the offending sentence -- the one with the question rephrased as the answer.

That's true. But then...why did you ask your subject to say that sentence in the first place? Are you trying to make their job harder than it needs to be?

The truth is, people use this technique because it's a way to make sure they get answers in the form of full sentences -- with all the proper names and important info included. This is super important if you're making a documentary or audio story that won't include narration.
Oh, and while I've got your attention -- let's just take a second to get one thing straight. Narration and narrative are two totally different words with two totally different meanings. Narration is the script that the reporter or host reads. It is the bits of the story that are written after the interviews are completed. It's the glue.

Narrative is a story -- told through a sequence of events -- that includes characters, surprises, stakes and change over time.

Most narratives are narrated. But it's totally possible to have an non-narrated narrative. See: Radio Diaries.
Whew. Now that we've got that settled.

When I gather tape for a story, I want to be sure to get every beat, every name, every detail in my interview subject's voice. So I go into every interview with the hope of coming out with a non-narrated piece.

And then, when it comes time to pull it all together, I usually realize that a narrated piece is just easier. And often better. So I wimp out and go with narration.

But that's okay! Because I have everything I need. Sure, I still have to fact check everything. But I don't have to wonder about who someone meant when they said "she." I don't need to write vague sentences that dance around the facts. I have a solid starting point.

So, how do I do this? How do I get people to talk in full sentences?

They're called "story questions." And no matter what kind of interview you're doing -- interview segment, news feature, audio narrative, documentary film, book, magazine article, blog post -- "story questions" are so, so helpful.

So, here they no particular order.

Just ask!

It's not rocket science. If you want a story, ask for a story.
"Tell me the story of X."

"Tell me about the day when Y happened."
Set the scene...

I love this one. The idea is to start the story a moment or two before the action begins. It's not that you'll necessarily use these details in your finished story. But by asking for them, you'll signal to your interview subject that you want the whole picture.
"I want you to set the scene for me. You walk into that room. Who is there? What do you see?"

"I'm hoping you can really describe that day. You woke up. What was the weather like?"
Ask two questions at once.

I mentioned this one before, but it's worth repeating. I do it multiple times per interview. The key is to keep the questions simple and quite closely related.
"So where did you go next, and what did you go there to do?"

"When and why did you decide to do X?"

"How and when did you decide you needed to do Z?"
Put an event in time.

Often, you'll go into an interview already knowing about the big turning point. Or, your subject will mention the most important moment of the story before you even get the chance to ask about it. This is a good way to acknowledge that you've heard the story before, but that you want more detail.
"At what point did you realize X?"

"How old were you when you got up the nerve to do Y?"

"How long had Z been happening before you finally decided you needed to fight it?"
Hunt for dialog.

Friends, if nothing else, please believe me on this: conversation is narrative gold. It draws the listener into the story. It makes them feel like they're there.

So any time an interview subject mentions that they called their best friend or went home to talk to their spouse, I very quickly jump in and ask…
"How did that conversation go? What did you say? What did they say?"
Ask for firsts...

Look, we don't always have the luxury of knowing every beat of a story when we go into an interview. Sometimes, we have to guess.

But, if you're talking to someone about something they love (be it a person, place or thing) you can never go wrong by asking about the first time they encountered that person, place or thing.
"Tell me about the first time you did X."

"Tell me about the first time you realized you cared about Y."

"Tell me about the first time you realized you were really good at Z."
Don't be afraid to ask for more!

Okay, there's this thing that nearly everyone does. They start a story out strong with all kinds of great detail. It's amazing! It's brilliant! It's exactly what we want!

… And then they skip to the end.

I'm not sure if they think we're not interested in those middle story beats? Or maybe they just don't want to dwell on all the hard work and struggles that got them to where they are now?

But almost every person I've ever interviewed will start a story, give me a few beats and then skip right to the happy/sad conclusion.

It's my job -- without apology or fanfare -- to get them back to those story beats in the middle.
"I want to go back. You say X happened. So what did you do?"

"Before we move on, I just need to know...when you did X, what happened next?"
I'd love to say that these "story questions" are a guarantee that you're gonna get a story-filled interview every time you pick up your mic (or fire up your Zoom.) But the fact is, some people just naturally speak in story. And some people will never do it, no matter how artfully you ask.

But I will promise you this: using "story questions" will increase the likelihood that you come out of your interview with great anecdotes. It's not going to work every time. But it's never, ever going to make things worse.

Of course, there's a catch.

After you get your interview subjects to speak in story, you're gonna need to encourage them to reflect and share emotion. For that, you're gonna need "emotion questions."

But let's leave those for another day, shall we?

I'd love to know….what are your favorite story questions? Is there a formula that's worked well for you? Reply to this email and let me know!

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