The elements of engaging stories are universal: strong characters, plot, beginning-middle-end, tension, surprise, resolution. What’s more, they’re central to every kind of story, not just features. Just ask investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling, who has reported on everything from pesticides to mental health in his 30 plus years at NPR. “You can do the greatest investigation of all time and dig up a gazillion important facts–but if you don’t tell a great story, nobody will listen,” Zwerdling writes in the IRE Journal.
One of Zwerdling’s goals is to get his characters to tell their own compelling stories, and he admits that can be a challenge, especially for broadcast. I’m willing to bet that most of us have interviewed people who couldn’t seem to make even a dramatic story interesting to save their lives. What you really want is “a gripping and detailed anecdote–the incident that best illustrates the conflict, or a turning point, or an aha moment in a larger story,” says Zwerdling. And that takes work.
So how does Zwerdling do it? Here are four techniques he uses to get people to recount an anecdote in vivid detail.
1. Mapping. Using an approach he credits to veteran newspaper editor Bill Marimow, Zwerdling asks the subject to draw a map of what happened: Where was he or she sitting, where was everyone else? “It helps spark…memories deep in the recesses of their brains–and suddenly, rich details come flooding back.”
2. Hypnotizing. Credited to investigative reporter Eric Nalder, this approach also is designed to put the person back into the situation you want him or her to describe. Zwerdling begins with the basic details: Day, time of day, weather, and so on. “These mundane details help show me whether my character is truly remembering the incident or making it up.”
3. Conversation. Zwerdling may ask how the character shared the incident with someone else at the time, a spouse or a friend.
4. Dreams. “When subjects seem really stuck in telling a dry, lifeless version of the incident, I’ll try this: ‘Have you dreamed about this incident? Tell me about it.'”
The bottom line? Asking the right questions can help people tell their their own stories in vivid language, making the one you tell on the air far more memorable. And if the questions fail, just be direct and explain to the people you interview why the telling of the story matters so much. “You’ve got to remember, my listeners are driving in the car, they’re making dinner for their family,” Zwerdling tells subjects. “They’re distracted – you’ve got to grab them and tell them, ‘Folks, THIS is what happened. This is why it’s important!’ And then they kind of get into it.”
Zwerdling also goes out of his way to make people comfortable with his radio gear before beginning an interview. He told the Nieman Storyboard he’ll even scratch his back with the microphone, anything to show it’s really just an extension of his body. None of his “tricks of the trade” would work, however, if he didn’t care deeply about the answers.
The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested. If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too. If you come in with some kind of persona that’s not you, then nothing will happen.
Here’s an example of Zwerdling’s work, Suicide by Cop, one of a series of stories he’s done about traumatic brain injuries suffered by Iraq war veterans. It’s long, but well worth your time.