I’ve been researching how content creators who are able to keep producing high-quality and engaging content, year after year, do it. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, who I first read in 2008, is continually publishing great work across many different mediums and has been doing so for decades.
Upon further examination, it’s clear that his work is almost entirely story-based. It starts with the stories themselves, and then he uncovers the data behind why those stories exist.
There are three steps:
- Identify the ideal customers who you personally want to learn more about
- Reach out and ask if they’d be willing to share their stories
- Be curious and interview them
Let’s dive into how this actually happens.
1. Identify customers you want to learn more about
It’s so important to pick people who you’re actually interested in because the ideas you’ll glean from your conversations don’t just come from asking a standard set of questions. You need to go deeper, get into their motivations, their background, their story; otherwise, you’ll just end up with the same basic info you could have collected on your own on the internet.
For example, I’ve been working with a customer who is breaking into a brand new market. She is doing something groundbreaking and bold. Just by looking at her site, I knew that she was out of the ordinary, and I genuinely wanted to know how she ended up doing her work. It’s fascinating to me.
Our conversation resulted in a bunch of fresh content ideas, including inspiration for this very post.
One practical piece of advice I wish someone had shared with me is that sustainability is way more important than you could ever imagine. If you’re not interested in the conversations you’re having, if they don’t excite you and draw you in, there is no way you can sustain them long enough to succeed in content creation.
But how will you know which conversations will interest you? Keep a journal. Take note of how you feel after having conversations with different people. Do you feel energized? Do you feel like you want to tell someone about all the ideas you now have? If you do, then you’re talking to the right people. But if you feel tired, like you just slogged through another conversation that was the same as a thousand you’ve had before, ask yourself why you feel that way. Then adjust who you’re having conversations with.
2. Reach out and ask if you can hear their stories
Here I feel like it’s fair to share a personal anecdote. People reach out to me a lot, asking for many things. I don’t respond to 99% of those requests because I know what’s going to happen. Someone will interview me, and afterward, I’ll feel like a wrung-out sponge.
But when someone who is genuinely interested in hearing my story reaches out, I am happy to share. It feels relational. I feel seen in what I’ve done and accomplished.
It feels good to have someone ask about your story.
Another reason I know this works is because when I was 19, I reached out to the founders of companies I thought were interesting. Many of these people responded and answered my questions. The outreach was simple. I asked if I could interview them for my blog, which I had made on WordPress. It looked like trash (screenshot below).
If a 19-year-old with a cheap-looking website sitting in a college dorm room with a broken foot can get the founders of multimillion dollar companies to respond to interview questions (over email, no less), then you have no excuse.
The key here is that it only works if you actually want to hear the person’s story. Yes, you are hoping that it will inspire you with ideas of what to write about, but it won’t work if that is your only intention.
You have to want to hear the story, and that will lead to inspiration and ideas of what to write about. Not the other way around.
Here is an example of a message you could send to ask for someone’s time to hear their story.
(Your Name here), I’m a (your title) and looking to learn more about (industry you are in).
Would you be open to sharing your story of how you built (their company or whatever it is) with me? After reading your bio, I wanted to learn more about (whatever stood out to you).
Let me know if you would be willing to talk with me sometime next week!
That’s it. Asking to hear people’s stories gets you connected.
The important thing here is to be honest with yourself. If you’re on a telegraphed path to squeeze content ideas out of your interviewees, it won’t work. The people you talk to will be upset because they’ll feel like the wrung-out sponge.
Get yourself to a place of openness, where you really do want to learn how the person you are reaching out to did what they did. Then, the rest will fall into place.
3. Be curious and interview
Much of the time when we ask questions, we have a preconceived idea of what the answer should be.
Much of the time when we listen to someone talk, we hang on to something that they say and plan what we are going to ask next based on that one little soundbite.
Much of the time when we listen to someone, we judge them rather than imagine how what they are saying has played out in our own lives.
Instead, let’s try to:
Ask questions with an open mind, ready to receive what the person says.
Stay present as we listen to the person answering our questions, and then base our follow-up on the entirety of their thought, rather than just the part we thought was most important.
Imagine how our own story is parallel to the speaker’s and walk in their shoes as they share.
Let go of our egos. Let go of trying to be a “good interviewer” and making sure we ask the “best” questions, and instead, simply stay present and engaged and not wander in our own minds trying to think up the next thing to ask.
Our conversations will be deep. They’ll follow a winding path that will unlock so much incredible information and insights about the person, ourselves, and the world we live in. We’ll have much to think about and ideas for days.
Of course, you must ask for permission to write about anything that the person shared. You might also have to anonymize the story, unless the person would like to be named and recognized. If you do recognize people, make sure you link to their content and give credit where credit is due. Let the person decide how they would like to be represented.
Clear your mind, remain open to the person’s story, and let yourself walk in their shoes—great ideas will come.
After ten years and 500 articles, plus hearing the stories of other content creators who have been doing this for decades, I know that the way to keep ideas flowing is through stories. I highly encourage you to give it a try. Reach out to five people this week; it will take 30 minutes. See what happens and let yourself indulge in the conversations.