A Word Wise reader wrote in with this question:
“How do I go about getting stories from clients? I understand that stories are powerful and that I need to use them whenever I can. But sometimes, a small business owner or a nonprofit provide very little information or examples (even when I ask the right questions).”
For the record, I've run into this problem more than once. The good news is there are a few ways you can get around it.
Most of the time, leaders and small business owners are not being deliberately ornery. The truth is that most of them want to give you what you need. But the reality is that they 1) simply have very little time and 2) may not know that they need to collect stories or 3) they don’t have a story-collection system in place. If a client isn't trained to have his or her antenna up to capture stories or if they are pressed for time, then it's easier for them to say, "We don't have any stories" or to put you off in some other way.
This creates a bit of a problem when you are on a deadline to give them engaging content.
Regardless of what a client may say, the fact is that there are always stories within an organization. You can teach clients to start looking for them, even if they don't know you're doing so. (Someday they will thank you because they DO need stories.)
And resist the temptation to kick and scream. Instead, remember that honey always catches more bees than vinegar. In other words, play nice. Be understanding and gracious. Then go about getting what you need in a different way than simply asking for it directly.
One route I always take for getting stories is to just get the client to talk. I ask the client to tell me about their programs and the people they are impacting. Most leaders love to talk about their work!
Then, I listen.
Usually this leads the client to tell me a story (even though they don't realize they are doing so.) For instance, if an organization runs an after school program, ask about the tutors and the children they are working with. See what names pop up. Ask a few leading questions to get more. A great line to use: "That's exciting (interesting, unusual, awesome.) Can you tell me more about that?"
This tactic accomplishes a couple of things. First, you get info that you need. But also, this approach establishes you as a partner. You show that you care about the client's work and are interested. You can see why leaders would love to work with writers like this. You're not just asking for information so you can get the job done ... you also become a part of the "team" because you share their passion and want to hear about their great work. Their victories become your victories, too.
Another option for getting stories is to ask to see the organization's past promotions (which I always do, anyway, and I ask which ones were the most successful.) Look for the stories in those promotions and re-write them, changing the names and specific circumstances. Edit in sensory details. You might consider combining one or more scenarios into a composite. Confidentiality requires that you change names and identifying characteristics, anyway, as a way to protect the organization’s beneficiaries.
You can also research the organization’s target population and then write a story about a beneficiary represented by that population. For instance, let's say you're writing for a nonprofit that serves at-risk children in Baltimore. You research to find out all kinds of statistics and information about Baltimore children who are in poverty; whose parents are substance abusers; whose parents are incarcerated; who are hungry; who qualify for services but don't access them because they don't know how or don't know that services are available. Then you can write an informed profile about a "for instance" beneficiary, describing the human need: "Tyrone creeps past the open bedroom door, hoping his mother doesn't hear him ... hoping she can't hear how loud his stomach is rumbling. If she awakens, he is afraid of what might happen ... there are xxxx Tyrones in Baltimore and we serve xxx just like him each week."
Stories are there. You may need to be creative to get them. But you’re a writer and you can do that.
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