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Other people’s stories

Where do those stories you’re always urged to tell come from? Usually, from other people (most of us in nonprofit communications and journalism are about telling other people’s stories, not our own, right?)

Art of the Interview is a definite read if you want to be a better interviewer, by Lawrence Grobel (New York: Three Rivers, 2004)

Art of the Interview is a definite read if you want to ask better questions to get stronger stories.

Before you can pitch a story to a journalist, before you can post a story on your Web site, before you can put a story in your newsletter… you have to have a story to tell. Because stories are about people, finding a good story virtually always means asking someone to tell hers. That means an interview.

Wanna know how? I’ve been reading Lawrence Grobel’s The Art of the Interview: Lessons from a Master of the Craft. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004). I’d rate it a buy, or at least check out of the library and read.

Grobel is perhaps an unlikely source… his expertise derives as near as I can tell halfway through the book from doing Playboy interviews of big-name stars. His approach will not be everybody’s approach, but what I like about his book is the way he treats the issues of control and power in an interview. To some extent, the conversation between storyteller (or source)and story re-teller (the interviewer, or reporter) is a battle for control. And Grobel reports what that feels like, how to deal with it, and best of all, he is totally cool with being on a writer’s power trip in a refreshing and completely un-p.c. way. His way is not the only way, but needs telling and must be understood.

Like a lot of interviews, the money paragraph—ah, here’s how you interview!–comes buried between tales of Grobel’s buddy Al Pacino and his reporting that James Garner’s stepmother beat the crap out of him:

Too often people speak in generalities. They will say, ‘That was a difficult time for me,’ and leave it at that. It’s your job to ask, ‘How difficult?’ ‘Why was it difficult?’ There’s nothing as frustrating as returning from an interview, listening to the tape, and hearing broad statements that weren’t challenged. You’ve got to focus like a laser when soliciting answers to your questions. You want specifics. Details. Examples. (p. 144)

There it is: ask direct questions. When someone offers a generality, ask them to clarify. I would add, that two questions that work in response to almost any statement are: “Is there a story that goes with that?” and “Can you say more about that?” Interviews are a kind of performance, equally nerve-wracking for the interviewer and the interviewee. Make it worth the time you put into doing it, by asking the questions you need to ask to get the info you need to present … one small step along the road to producing great stories that can lead to victories in your work, successes in your fundraising, etc. etc.

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Category: Tips, Useful Books

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