The questions before the questions

A little background goes a long way.

The questions before the questions

Before every Artifact interview, the interviewee receives a questionnaire. We’ve been sending these out since our very first podcast.

Each form is specific to the subject of the interview. For example, the questions for a Family Heritage Artifact will be very different from those for a Wedding Roast Artifact.

We do this for a couple of reasons. First, it helps build trust between the two sides of the conversation. The process of opening up to a stranger can feel intimidating, but this isn’t just any stranger—it’s someone who has loads of experience asking questions and someone who has taken the time to carefully read over your answers.

Second, it gives us a head start. The questionnaire allows the interview to move quickly beyond the surface into deeper waters. Remember, the audience for an Artifact is usually friends and family—people who will already be familiar with the broad strokes of the interviewee's life or personality; what they want is detail and candor. We're after the stuff that you don’t get from simply listing the places they lived, the schools they went to, the jobs they had.

When the two sides eventually connect person-to-person for the recording, Artifact interviewers typically don’t re-ask questions from the questionnaire. Instead, the answers provide grist for more specific and enlightening conversation.

For example, when somebody is scheduled to talk about a loved one — let’s call her “Mary” — the questionnaire asks, "What is Mary's superpower?”

The interviewee might answer, “Mary is so good at connecting people.”

In the interview, we won't ask “What is Mary's superpower?”

Instead, we'll say: "Mary is really good at connecting people. Can you think of a relationship in your life that you have because of Mary?”

Another goal is to get the interviewee thinking in advance of the interview. Completing the questionnaire helps them start the process of recalling a specific time or place, pondering an important relationship, or analyzing the experiences that shaped them. As a result, they will be more prepared, have better answers, and speak more fluidly about the subject of the Artifact.

Finally, the most important reason to employ the pre-interview questionnaire is that it can open up new and surprising lines of questioning. Someone might hint at a juicy story or reveal a detail that illuminates a whole new side of a person or a life.

That was certainly the case for an interview we conducted a few months back. In the questionnaire, we asked if the subject had suffered any major setbacks. A dear friend mentioned that the subject had lost part of her arm to an airplane propeller — her husband was an amateur pilot. When the accident occurred, she had been training to become a surgeon.

The questionnaire got us to the setback, but once the friend was on the line, what she really wanted to talk about was how this woman had changed course and become a well-respected therapist. She still spent her career helping people, just in a totally different field. This startling fact, gleaned from a pre-interview questionnaire, led to an amazing story of resilience.