The first-person narrative—those “as told to” articles that capture the voice of one person, written by a professional—has a reputation among journalists as being just a tad lazy. Interview subject, edit transcript, push it live, and you’re done.
Truly engaging first-person narratives, however, require as much diligence as a traditional reported article. Sometimes they require more. In these pieces, the journalist isn’t the storyteller; we’re a conduit for the person whose story we’re bringing to life. It takes all the skills of traditional journalism—background research, sharp interviewing skills, an eye for a story arc—but strips away the writerly tricks journalists spend years developing.
Successful content marketing that uses this technique engages the best of our skills as journalists. At least, I hope it does, as it’s one of my favorite things to do—getting to showcase the people who make our clients’ work exceptional humanizes our clients to their audience, and in turn it humanizes Manifest to our clients. Here’s what I keep in mind when developing a first-person narrative.
Four Tips for Perfecting First-Person Narratives
1. Interview well—but differently
When interviewing a source for a larger story, reporters’ questions tend to be more targeted in order to obtain specific information that informs the article.
Questions for a first-person narrative should still be specific (stay away from “So, tell me about yourself”), but the goal here is to understand the person’s story. Broad, open-ended questions are likelier to help writers elicit that story than narrow, time-and-date questions. That’s what follow-up questions are for.
2. Shut it
Your mouth, that is. The No. 1 blunder interviewers make is talking too much. Share enough of your own experience with your subject to establish a connection, but once you sense that your interviewee is comfortable, let that person talk.
Depending on the intended breadth of the article, you might need to ask as few as three questions in the whole interview. When you sense that a person is going off on a tangent that won’t serve the reader, you can nudge your subject back on track, just as you would in a social conversation. (Try “That’s really interesting, but I can’t stop thinking about something you mentioned earlier—can you tell me more about calf roping/clowning school/your newly patented All-Dirt Diet?”)
3. Take some liberties
You don’t want to put words in your subject’s mouth—everything in the final narrative should come directly from your interviewee. But people don’t tell stories in a linear fashion. That’s easy enough to work with when you’re extracting a two-sentence quote to be used for a reported article, but when an entire piece is an “as told to,” the writer’s job shifts.
Stitching together a fragmented story—again, using your subject’s own words—into a tidy narrative is a part of the task. If you do it right, your subject won’t even recognize the editing you’ve done when they read the piece.
So how do you do it right? Listen for your subject’s intent, and prioritize that when editing. Let’s say someone uses a beautiful turn of phrase to emphasize the power of Endeavor A, but describes Endeavor B with less colorful words.
If the two things they’re talking about are related, you may be able to use that turn of phrase to describe Endeavor B, even if your final piece doesn’t mention Endeavor A. Proceed carefully, though—if your subject talked about both things with equal passion, you’re probably on safe ground. But if they were humdrum in talking about Endeavor B, applying that potent phrasing could misrepresent the intent.
4. Let your subject review the copy
You’re telling this person’s story, after all. Allowing the person you’ve interviewed to review copy assures that in the course of editing, any good-faith misinterpretations are corrected. If you’ve done your job correctly, any changes from your subject will reflect that.
Normally, writers are loath to let sources review their copy, lest they change their point of view or try to rewrite the article. But in the dozens of first-person narratives I’ve done, I’ve only run into one subject who significantly changed the work upon review.
Is there a chance you’ll be burned and the subject will revoke the right to print the article, or change it beyond recognition? Yes. If that happens, depending on the nature of their changes, you may be able to meld your original piece with the edits, explaining why the original was more powerful.
Sometimes you may need to accept that your subjects have the right to tell the story in the way they see fit, even at the expense of the craft. But it’s worth the risk—and it’s a small risk at that. In content marketing, any story of this nature that we tell is going to be both truthful and positive. Allowing for review stays faithful to that spirit.