by Janet Jerve, NACAC writer/editor
Before you start interviewing people or gathering personal stories to help you with your advocacy efforts, you need to first answer the what, when, where, why, how and who questions regarding your advocacy work. You should first be able to answer these questions and explain your mission to prospective speakers. The information below is designed for people working with youth or parents to tell their stories but is also of use the story-tellers themselves.
- What is your specific mission/goal/message?
- What do you hope to accomplish by delivering your message?
- When is the best time to deliver your message?
- Where is the best place to deliver your message?
- Why is it important to deliver your message?
- How will delivering your message help children and families?
- How will using personal stories help you deliver your message?
- How will you engage your audience once they have heard your message?
- Who are the best people to tell their personal stories?
- Who do you want to target to hear your message?
- What follow-up activities need to be planned to keep your audience engaged in your mission, help you reach your goals, and deliver your message to others?
Interviewing a Prospective Speaker
- Build trust—Building trust is essential. You are the one who has to build trust. There are many ways to build trust—be creative. Some ways to build trust are:
- Call when you say you will call.
- Provide information about who you are, what your mission is, and what you want your speaker to do.
- Take time to get to know the person, talk to them, find common ground and put them at ease.
- Show respect—think of how you would want to be treated if you were revealing very personal information.
- Know that your speakers are key members of the advocacy team and let them know how important they are as advocates and as a voice for others who share their perspective.
- Keep your promises and don’t make a promise you can’t keep.
- Guarantee that the speaker can see and make changes or approve the written story before it goes to print.
- Communicate what your mission is and how you plan to use personal stories to accomplish your goals—Take the time to explain your mission and the speaker’s role in that mission. Find out if you share common goals and if the person agrees with your mission. If there are no common goals, this person may not be a good match for you.
- Ask permission to record the interview. Record the interview and take notes.
- Listen—Let the person tell you their story. Many speakers have lived through multiple traumas and they almost need to spill their whole story before they can reflect on it and answer your questions. If you try to push your agenda, your need to control the interview may cause you to interrupt their flow and miss their best quotes. Many people get stuck on parts of their stories. Some are locked into painful parts of their experience, blank out in parts, or blame themselves for the outcome of a trauma. Some have pre-verbal memories and can’t find words to describe their feelings—they remember a smell, a sound, a touch, an action. Just listen. Be patient and help them sort out the details of their story.
- Plan questions in advance, but be prepared to add new ones as you hear the person’s story.
- Avoid too many questions too soon and back off on subjects you can tell the person is avoiding or seems uncomfortable discussing in depth—There is a time to ask questions, but first give the person time to tell their story as it makes sense to them. In the beginning, ask questions only if you don’t understand something.
- Back off if the person becomes overwhelmed or emotional—Offer empathy and assurance. Give the person a break and suggest that you stop. Most often the person wants to continue, but appreciates the offer to stop and your understanding.
- Explain to the person what you know you don’t want them to publicly share and explain why. For example, our staff have always told people not to name social workers or publicly bash them. While we may have empathy for the speaker and experiences he suffered through due to poor practice, at our forums, we were trying to engage the entire audience to come together and work for foster care reform. Sometimes there are complicated parts of a person’s story that are off topic for your purposes and you may not want to reveal those parts because of time and space constraints, or because you don’t want to steer your audience away from your rime advocacy message.
- Take time to reflect on the story and schedule a short second interview to clarify questions and to make sure you have enough information and specific quotes to shape the story for your purpose.
- If you are one of the speakers, take the time to follow the steps for interviewing a speaker and writing the story. You can tape record yourself telling your story so that you can hear it and listen objectively. Listen for the key points and use the tape to help you know what to cut. Have someone else write the story if you are not confident writing it. Have others edit your written story even if you write it. Practice and time your speech like everyone else.
Choosing Speakers and Stories
- Form a team to help you choose the speakers and stories that best convey your advocacy message. It can be difficult to choose speakers, particularly when you have to tell someone their story won’t fit your purpose. Stating your purpose up front and making it clear that each speaker’s story must tie into that purpose will help. If some of the prospective speakers are people you know personally, having the team decide which speakers/stories to use will take the pressure off of you. Your mission must stay central to your work.
- Choose a wide range of speakers and stories to convey your message from a variety of perspectives. Look at your mission and goals and think of the different kinds of stories that can convey your message from different points of view. Look at gender, age, perspective and other differences pertinent to your issue to help you choose people who can fully inform legislators and other advocates you are trying to reach.
- Don’t burn bridges—take the time to explain why you can’t use a story for a particular advocacy effort. When you find willing and eager speakers, be as diplomatic as possible when you can’t use their story at this time. Maybe you can find another role for them or have them help you in another way. Maybe you will be able to have them tell their story for another advocacy effort in the future.
Writing the Story
- Discuss with prospective speakers how you will need to shape the story. You will have a message to convey and a length limit. The story will need to stay within those limits.
- Keep the story to one page.
- Quote the person as much as possible. The person you are interviewing has lived the experience and speaks from the depth of that experience. You will never be able to paraphrase the story with the same insight and power.
- Include details in the story that will help the audience form pictures in their minds.
- Have other people edit the story and help you stay on message. It is common to become attached to powerful parts of a person’s story that may distract the audience from the intended message. If you have interviewed and become attached to the person, you may not see when you have lost your focus by including details you don’t need for the story. Other editors can help keep the story focused.
- Call the speaker back for clarification if while you are writing the story you need more information or need a few more quotes. Sometimes you don’t realize until you get to the written stage and start shaping the story that you have missed getting key information. Don’t try to invent it, call the person back and get more quotes.
Preparing People to Speak
- Remind speakers that their story will be public. Believe it or not, some people panic at the last minute. Make sure you tell them how public the event will be.
- Convey that you have confidence in your speakers.
- Encourage the speakers to use their best strategy as they prepare to speak in front of an audience. Tell them to make an outline, write out their speech, practice giving their speech, or read it—whatever works best for them.
- Insist that speakers practice and time their speeches.
- Offer to help a speaker practice—even if it has to be over the phone.
- Make yourself available to assist your speakers. Let them know they can call you if they get nervous, need support, or have questions. Sometime nervous family members hear the speeches and say things that raise doubts in your speakers. Be ready to support them.
- Never use a story or parts of a story without getting permission.
- Help protect any privacy issues you can for a person.
- Tell the truth. In telling the truth, remember that you only need to tell what the audience needs to know.
- Never try to use a person’s story. You will never be an effective advocate if you don’t understand the difference between ethically using a story to help convey an advocacy message and using or manipulating people and their stories to fit your needs.