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Collecting Amazing Stories

I think we’ve all heard it before – tell the stories of the individuals and families who your organization impacts. Stories are emotional, paint a picture, and build awareness. But when it comes down to it, why do we shy away from collecting and telling stories?

One answer is that the process can be time-consuming. It can take several hours to identify a storyteller, conduct the interview, write the story, snap compelling photos, get an approval of the final version, and finally share the story. (I’m tired already!)  Even after a story is ready to share, it may not be extremely compelling. 

In this blog, I’m not going to share a secret or offer a shortcut to easy story collecting and telling, although sometimes I wished there was one. Over the past several months, I learned three important lessons that can help us collect better stories to share. Here’s what I learned:

1.  Never assume

I interviewed countless mothers and towards the end of the tax season one woman, like many others I interviewed, talked proudly about raising her children. Feeling connected to her within a few minutes of the interview, I asked if she ever wanted to be a mother—which felt like an odd question, and I braced myself for an obvious answer. However, she surprised me and said, “No.” Her answer opened the door for me to ask her questions about how she grew into her role as a mom when she never wanted to be one. This was one of the best interviews because I asked a question where I assumed I knew the answer.

2.  Listening is difficult

Listening seems like a no-brainer when interviewing, but it’s extremely difficult. There have been countless times when something has popped into my head and strayed me away from being fully present. One particular interview was difficult because it took place outside on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. This challenged my ability to listen to the whole story and dig deeper by asking thoughtful follow-up questions. I learned to focus on staying present, no matter the circumstance, because I did not want to risk missing the most important sentence of the story.

3.  It’s okay to ask vulnerable questions

Earlier this month I was coaching Drew, our new story collection intern, about asking vulnerable questions during an interview. We do this in order to pick apart the layers of the individual and get at his or her core. So I had him practice with our colleague, Christine. During the interview, Drew asked a lot of broad questions and near the end, he knew several facts about Christine but didn’t know what made Christine tick.

So I asked her one broad question and always had a follow-up question to her answer. The series of questions led me to ask, “Was there a time in your life when you wished you would have gotten more help?” This allowed Christine to open up and share about an experience early in her life that influenced her career path. Not only did we learn something new about our colleague, we learned that asking vulnerable questions give the storyteller the opportunity to open up.

These lessons are not necessarily new to me, and they’re likely not new to you, but sometimes we forget them. Even after writing this blog, I’ll make mistakes and forget to listen deeply or ask a vulnerable question the next time I conduct an interview. The good news is that it doesn’t matter how many times we forget; it only matters that we have the capacity to reflect on the process and work hard to improve the next time so we don’t shy away from telling amazing stories. 

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