Storytelling Secrets and Secrets in Storytelling

Based on the YNPN Des Moines Discussion Group: Confidentiality in Storytelling on November 8, 2018

During the past five years, the marketing world has woken up to what writers and readers everywhere have always known: People crave stories. And storytelling is often way more effective than data when it comes to convincing donors to give, because it builds on emotion, empathy, and trust—universal human values.

In our number-centered world, that means stories have real ROI, as this chart by Michael Brennan, CEO of Marketing Insider Group shows.

In the nonprofit world, stories are extra effective, but they can also be extra tricky, especially when you’re writing about people with lived experience of poverty, trauma, or abuse. You must walk the fine line between telling a good, true story and respecting the wishes and safety of your subject.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Before the Interview

Write your questions down first. Think deeply about what you want to ask, and try to break out of the conventional questions. Focus on questions that trigger reflection and specific memories.


  • Do you have a favorite memory as a child?
  • What were you thinking in that moment?
  • What decisions from that time do you regret?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What do you want most in life?
  • What do you want the public to know about people in your situation?

Think about the order of your questions. Your questions should mimic the classic story arc—from character introduction to conflict to transformation and resolution.

  • Start with easy, friendly questions like:
    • Tell me about yourself.
    • What are your hobbies?
    • How would your friends describe you?
  • Build slowly into the meat of the story, asking about their childhood, when relevant, and then into the more difficult personal challenges they might have faced or be facing currently.
  • End with reflective questions that get the subject to think more deeply about their experience. By this time, you will have built some trust with your subject, and they should feel more comfortable answering questions like:
    • What are your long-term dreams?
    • How you want your kids’ lives to be different than your own?
    • How have you changed as a person from this experience?

Practice, even if it’s just saying a few questions aloud in the car on the drive there. It will make you feel more confident and prepared.

The Interview

  • Meet in person, when possible. Allow the story subject to suggest a place first. If they defer to you, select a public place like a coffee shop or restaurant. Try to avoid interviews at the office, as the often turn out more clinical.
  • Bring food or drink. People have shared confidences with each other over meals for thousands of years. Plus it’s just common courtesy, and it adds to the bond you are building together. If you are meeting at a restaurant or coffee shop, always pay for the subject’s meal or snack.
  • Offer up a confidence about yourself—something you wouldn’t normally share right away with a stranger. Remember that you are there not to steal their secrets but to have a conversation between two humans.
  • Make them comfortable. Tell them right away: “If I ask anything you don’t feel comfortable answering, just tell me, and we’ll move on.” Remember, they are never obligated to share anything with you.
  • Record the interview, if possible. This allows you to focus deeply on the conversation rather than scribbling notes. Your phone works well as a recorder. Over the phone, the app Tape A Call is a great asset.
  • Throw out your questions. As you start to go down your list, you’ll realize half your questions have already been answered and half are no longer relevant. But you’ll have a dozen new questions pop up in your mind. The questions prepared you, but now you are having a conversation.

Say “Thank you” at the end, and send a thank-you email or note afterwards. Receiving a story is always a privilege, not a right.

Anonymity and Confidentiality

  • Try to use real names when possible. But if the subject wants to have their name changed, do so at their request. This is their prerogative as the story subject. But note for readers with an asterisk or footnote that the name has been changed.
  • Feel free to leave off last names, especially when stories have sensitive information in them. You don’t want the story to be the first thing to come up when someone is googled for a job interview.
  • Never, ever include details that the subject shared with you but asked you not to put in the story. And don’t pressure them to include those facts.
  • In some cases, anonymity may be the best option, especially for minors or if you’re sharing details about the subject could put them in danger (from immigration authorities or an abusive family member).
  • Some nonprofits even combine details from several subjects’ lives and choose a new name to protect the people involved. Make sure this is noted so donors’ know what is happening.
  • Give up on a story when needed. If the subject seems overly reluctant or it becomes clear the story could put them in danger, you may need to drop it and move on. The person involved always come first, not the story or your organization.
  • Share the story with your subject before publishing. This ensures that you have all the facts right and that you’ve not included anything that would make them uncomfortable.

Stories at Events

Inviting clients to speak at events can be a very effective fundraising technique. But tread carefully, because it can be full of pitfalls too.

  • Don’t invite one person to speak too many times. Research has shown that telling a traumatic story over and over can force the person to relive the abuse.
  • If you have the budget, consider a video or a series of videos telling client stories that you can show at events.
  • Be respectful of the clients’ schedules. They lead hectic lives and can’t drop everything to come speak for you.
  • Consider an interview format, where a staff member interviews the subject in front of the audience. This means the person doesn’t have to prepare a speech in advance, and it’s less intimidating. Plus, you can craft your questions to hit on the most important points.
  • Provide your storyteller with a token of appreciation, such as a gift card to a gas station or grocery store.
  • Consider starting an official storytelling program. Clients can gain public speaking skills and put the program on their resume. Plus, you’ll have a larger number of speakers to choose from when events happen.


No matter what else you do, respect your subject’s wishes. When in doubt, ask them what they are comfortable with. Again, the person involved always comes first.

Want to learn more best practices? Check out An Ultimate Guide to Nonproft Storytelling.

And feel free to reach out to Rachel Vogel Quinn, YNPN Marketing Co-Chair and Marketing Communications Manager at United Way of Central Iowa, if you’d like to chat about interview and storytelling. It’s her favorite subject!

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