Jennifer Miller, Creative Director  ●  8/8/2017

Great Storytelling: 6 Tips to Interview Patients and Their Families

Almost any organization interested in showing its supporters the impact of their giving should be telling great stories. Which is every organization.

But telling the stories of children who are hospitalized or fighting serious illness comes with its own sets of sensitivities. The hospitals are rightly protective of families. Patients and parents are in the midst of likely the darkest days they may face. It hardly seems like the time to ask them to give their story to help the hospital or organization fundraise. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. I’ll give you the right way. But first, some context:

Before my career in direct response, I was a journalist and copywriter. I’ve been published everywhere from Newsweek to the Miami Herald. To date, I’ve interviewed close to 1,000 people from nearly every walk of life.

Here’s what I learned: Everyone has a story.

Sorry. That’s as one-size-fits-all as it gets. Everything else about telling great stories requires skill, experience, instinct, and technique. And lots of it. Knowing the right way to interview can take a story from “I’ve heard this before” to “Tell me more.”

 

Here are 6 tips to interview hospitalized children and their families the right way:

  1. Find a comfortable place to talk and record the interview.
    Using a digital recorder is always a good idea, but take notes, too. Recorders don’t capture the nonverbal communication that can provide the emotional fuel to a story. Where should you conduct the interview? Comfort is key. The more comfortable someone feels physically, the more he or she may open up and provide really insightful answers. All you have to do is ask: “Where are you most comfortable chatting?” (Note: I didn’t say, “Where are you most comfortable conducting this interview?”) What you’re really telling them is, “Your comfort matters. You matter. You come first, not me.” I’ve talked to parents in waiting rooms, outside in the hot sun or cold snow, in their hospital rooms, and in the cafeteria. Sometimes the TV in the patient’s room is blaring, and a family member rushes to turn it off. I say leave it on. If that’s what they’re used to hearing — if that’s the normal ambient noise in the room — leave it. Don’t change anything for me, the storyteller. I’m not intruding. I’m not disrupting. I’m here to listen. And that leads me to …
  2. Practice empathic listening.
    This is really important. If you take anything away, please let it be this: Do more listening than talking. A child could have cancer and be in the hospital for 10 days of chemo. The family hears a lot of talking during that time … from the phlebotomist … the nurse … the oncologist … the next nurse. Most of the time, the child and family are doing all the listening. Who’s listening to them? You. Don’t confuse this with a therapy session. This is about asking focused, careful questions that get detailed, emotionally-charged answers for you to use in your fundraising stories. Pay attention to body language. When does someone tear up? Allow short silences to hang in the air so they have time to form their thoughts. Nurture this conversation and show them they can trust you with their story — a story you may have heard shades of before, but which is nevertheless unique and distinct and worth telling your donors about.
  3. Ask open-ended questions.
    Most of us like to prepare for interviews with a list of questions, and that’s very useful to have as a back-up. But think carefully about the questions you ask. It’s better to avoid ones that elicit a short or one-word response. You want long, thoughtful answers. That means open-ended questions. Try starting with “How did you feel when …” or “What was it like to …”  or “Tell me about …” kinds of questions. Not only do those often provide better answers, they can lead to other questions you may not have on your list.
  4. Don’t rush it.
    Think about this tip carefully, because time is an important commodity when your child or loved one is battling to live. Time is everything. In the hospital, time gets shortchanged. The doctors are in and out with a stack of other patients to visit. People move quickly. Hospital staff come in and out of the room. Show patience when listening to responses to your questions. You might hear a patient or family member apologize for not being able to answer your questions or remember a detail. That’s understandable. They’re short on sleep and long on heartache.
  5. Establish rapport.
    Try to get to know the person you’re interviewing a little better. That means sometimes opening up about yourself, too. In fact, establishing some common ground is a great way to start an interview, which is really just a conversation. Most people begin to share something about themselves, and you’ll do the same back. This kind of rapport is critical during interviews. You’re essentially telling them, “I want to put you at ease.” You’ll sometimes find that patients are grateful to talk about anything that doesn’t pertain to their illness, even if for a little while.
  6. Include the children.
    Children give unguarded answers. Those are the authentic details in a story. One thing sick kids don’t talk about is their illness. They hear adults talking about it day and night, so they’re numb to it. They’re still kids, despite having a disease that might rob them of their lives. So ask them about them, not their diagnosis. What’s their favorite game? Movie? What’d they dress up for last Halloween? Get them talking a little. Once you see the spark in their eyes (pay attention to that and not your notes), you can get even more great nuggets to use. Those nuggets? They’re what make good fundraising stories great.

Of course, the interview is just the start of the story. You’ll have lots more to do. To learn more about fundraising storytelling, check out our Storytelling How-To.

Just remember this: Donors should never feel like their gifts are doing the same ol’ same ol’. The stories you tell your donors reflect the impact of their giving. So tell them well. And keep them coming back for more.

 

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