The Kitchen Sisters â€“ a.k.a. National Public Radio producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva — tell extraordinary stories about ordinary people.
Thousands of listeners have tuned in over the years to hear the Sistersâ€™ careening explorations of subjects as diverse as the daily lives of Vietnamese nail salon workers, the history of the countryâ€™s first all-female radio station and the myriad ways people interact with their George Foreman Grills.
The Kitchen Sisters met in Santa Cruz in 1979 and soon began collaborating on a weekly radio show about California culture for a local radio station.
â€œFrom the very start, our live radio show in Santa Cruz grew out of the oral history tradition. After all this time, so much of this is still in our bones,â€ said Nikki Silva. â€œWe listen to people for hours and then work to consolidate what theyâ€™ve said in a true and honest way.â€
Since then, theyâ€™ve produced more than 200 stories for public broadcast, collaborated on several hugely popular series about the flotsam and jetsam of our diverse cultural landscape, worked with the likes of Frances Ford Coppola, Paul Auster, Tina Fey and Willie Nelson, and won a slew of accolades including two Peabody Awards, the DuPont-Columbia Award and three Audies.
During an afternoon seminar at the Knight Fellowship Lounge at Stanford, these master storytellers played excerpts from some of their favorite radio pieces and shared tips on the art of storytelling.
Whatâ€™s perhaps most striking about The Kitchen Sistersâ€™ ideas about how to get interview subjects to open up and tell great stories, is how much their thoughts apply to conducting interviews across any medium in journalism. What works for radio, pretty much works across the board.
Forthwith, a rundown of The Kitchen Sistersâ€™ top interviewing techniques:
â€¢ When we first meet people, we often ask them to sing a song, talk about their favorite food or share a story from their childhood. These memory trigger topics make people feel comfortable right from the start.
â€¢ Once we are ready to start the formal interview, the most common first question we ask is, â€œWhat did you have for breakfast?â€ People are relieved because itâ€™s an easy question to answer and it frees them up.
â€¢ The second thing we usually do is ask interviewees to introduce themselves â€“ to say their name, where they grew up, what they do etc.
â€¢ About 10 questions before the end of the interview, we sometimes say, â€œI have one more question to ask youâ€¦â€ The subject often relaxes even more at this point because they think the interview is over and start to provide really great answers. They donâ€™t even notice that we go on to ask a bunch more questions.
â€¢ We usually ask people at the end of an interview if there is anything else they would like to add.
â€¢ The advantage of working together on an interview is that we can both ask the same question in a different way to get the best possible answer.
â€¢ We often uses phrases like â€œCould you talk a little bit more aboutâ€¦â€ or â€œTell me more aboutâ€¦â€ in order to get people to expand on shorter answers.
â€¢ Sometimes weâ€™ll encourage people to go deeper into their story by acting surprised by the things they say. We interject phrases like, â€œAre you kidding?!â€ and â€œNo way!â€ The trick is to be interested and amazed.
â€¢ We only ask open-ended questions.
â€¢ We believe in the freshness of telling and hearing a story for the first time. Thatâ€™s why we donâ€™t do pre-interviews. If interviewee invites us out for coffee before we get them on tape, we politely decline.