‘Get the name of the dog’ and other ways to get creative material
I still remember — more than a decade later — one of the thousand heartbreaking stories about Hurricane Katrina victims, an AP report about the Superdome evacuation:
As powerful as that story is — the poor child cried until he vomited, for gosh sakes — the two most wrenching words are “Snowball, Snowball.”
Why? Because details drive stories.
As The Poynter Institute’s editorial guru Roy Peter Clark counsels:
“Get the name of the dog.”
Three ways to conduct a good interview
Sure, there’s a place for open-ended questions in your interview process. But good stories also require specific, tangible detail. So ask specific questions. Make sure the interview subject names names and numbers numbers.
1. Get the name of the dog.
So “get the name of the dog, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car,” Clark counsels.
William H. Broad named names when writing about the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in an article about how engineers use disasters to learn to improve structures:
Notice how “black cocker spaniel” is more effective than “dog” and how “Tubby” is more effective than “black cocker spaniel” alone.
The other day, I was working with communicators at a financial services organization on their content marketing pieces. For a story on the organization’s financial camps for kids, they’d written:
Pretty abstract; pretty dull. I encouraged them to find a concrete detail to liven things up.
What have your kids done when they were bored? I asked. And from the back of the room, one communicator yelled out:
“They painted the schnauzer.”
Oh, I think we have a lead, I said. What color did they paint him? The communicator answered:
“They used Pepto-Bismol.”
Oh, I know we have a lead.
Just one more thing … What’s the name of the dog?
Make sure your list of questions includes those that go to concrete detail. That’s more important than whether you use a recording device.
2. Ask ‘What’s it like?’
Sometimes, all you need to do to get a comparison is to ask. The question to ask to get a metaphor is “What’s it like?”
That’s the approach Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, recommends. His workshop participants ask: “What’s it like?” to create metaphors for the meaning of life.
Two of my favorites:
“Life is like an unassembled abacus. It’s what you make of it that counts.”
“Life is like a maze in which you try to avoid the exit.”
What’s popcorn like?
In my storytelling workshops, participants practice “The Popcorn Project,” where they explain popcorn in part by asking “What’s it like?” Some of the images:
Caramel popcorn is like “honey sliding off a ski slope.”
Stale popcorn smells “like it’s been sitting under a table in a pre-school for 40 years.”
Make sure your interview questions include ‘What’s it like?”
Your subject matter expert may be able to answer this question for you. One good question to ask in the interview is:
“If you were explaining this concept to a class of third graders, what would you say it was like?”
3. Ask the subject to set the scene.
So you weren’t lucky enough to be there when the story unfolded? Ask your subject matter experts to set the scene.
- Start with questions that get to description: “What was the weather like?” “Were you wearing a coat?”
- Take the subject matter expert through a timeline. Ask, “What happened next?” “What happened after that?”
- Switch to the present tense to put the source in the scene: “What are you doing now?”
One technique for fleshing out a story during an interview is to take the subject to the scene of the story and ask her to show you what happened.
I suspect that’s the approach the writer used for this passage, from a story from AMD Advances, the marketing magazine of Advanced Micro Devices:
Scene-setting is one way communicators at AMD Advances do the seemingly impossible: They make technology compelling and understandable through storytelling. As Managing Editor Daniel Koga writes:
“By showing the human side of the high-tech industry, we … convey AMD’s emphasis on customer support and being a company that touts its people as much as its technology.”
Questions and answers
Concepts are great, but concrete details, metaphors and scene setting make or break a story. Make sure you plan to spend part of the interview getting these golden nuggets.
Source: Roy Peter Clark, The American Conversation and the Language of Journalism, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies (St. Petersburg, Fla.), 1994