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How to interview people on difficult subjects

31 March 2017

Case studies are wonderful. The right quotes from interviews with people your charity supports can bring your cause to life and showcase the stories behind endless stats.

But capturing those stories through an interview can be tough. Especially if the person you’re interviewing has been through some major challenges in their life. For the person behind a case study, reliving a negative experience might be stressful. And being tasked with getting those killer quotes could be a high pressure experience for you too.

Here are some practical tips that I’ve used for interviews to ensure it’s a positive experience for everyone. 

Throughout I’m assuming you’re going to talk on the phone, but the same principles work whether you’re calling, video conferencing or meeting in person.

Prepare properly

Thinking about your questions, making sure your mobile’s charged (if you’re using one) and putting the correct time in your calendar isn’t just sound interview preparation. Getting the basics right also shows respect for the person you’re about to talk to. And that includes getting their consent for you to record the conversation too.

Every writer has a story about the time their recording device ran out of power mid-interview. Don’t let it happen when someone’s relating something painful. 

Listen carefully

About three-quarters of the way through an interview, I still have an urge to say something like: “Wow! I totally agree – the government should do something about that, in fact my brother had something similar…”

It goes without saying that this is a terrible impulse. An interviewer’s job is to listen carefully to what’s being said, not to share their own experiences. A conversational approach can be useful to put people at ease, but it should prioritise their responses.  

Ask “how did that make you feel?”

Often interviewees like to stick to the facts: the who, what, when and why of the situation. That’s important, but as an interviewer it’s your role to gently nudge them into speaking from the heart rather than the head.

Asking “How did that make you feel?” is a powerful way to flip the script from facts to emotions. Also, be prepared, it can inspire some surprising responses.

Ask “Is there anything more you want to say?”

If you’re asking the questions then you’re setting the agenda. That’s important (interviews without structured questions are just rambling chats) but means you can often miss areas that matter most to the interviewee. As a final question, just asking if there’s anything more they want to add gives them the freedom to say what they need to say. 

It can take the interview into unexpected areas (I once learned an awful lot about how a certain medication super-charged one interviewee’s sex drive when I was interviewing for an annual report) and it’s where the really good quotes often emerge.

Make sure the interviewee can access support

Interviewing for case studies shows you just how resilient people can be. But it’s vital that by the time they talk to you, the interviewee is emotionally prepared to share their story with the world.

Making sure that interviewees are offered support from your charity both before, and after, the interview is essential. 

Don’t ignore your own needs

Telling you about their experiences can be a way for interviewees to ‘own’ their story – to take control over what happened to them.

Sometimes telling that story is cathartic, rather than stressful, for them. Unfortunately, the process could still be unexpectedly traumatic for you.

As an interviewer you may find that you absorb other people’s emotions. Don’t hold on to them: it’s helpful to release those emotions by talking to a friend or colleague (and without identifying the interviewee).

This isn’t your story, it’s theirs. And the best way to honour them is to write a case study so compelling that it inspires powerful emotions in your supporters too – and ultimately inspires them to support your cause.

Matt Chittock

copywriter, freelance

Matt Chittock is an experienced copywriter, journalist and proofreader working in the not-for-profit sector.