Uncorking Their Stories: What I’ve Learned from Interviewing Authors

Moderators and authors have a lot in common, and no one knows this more than Mike Carlon. As the author of eight novels and a professional who has been involved in the qualitative marketing research business for a quarter of a century, Carlon lives these similarities firsthand. These insights were cemented after he started interviewing authors on the Uncorking a Story podcast and his researcher instincts kicked in, and he started documenting them. In this article, he shares insights into the five traits qualitative researchers and moderators share.

By Michael Carlon, Podcast Host, Uncorking a Story, Stamford, Connecticut, michael.carlon@uncorkingastory.com, @Uncorkingastory

Editor’s Note: Some of you may have listened to many of Mike’s in-depth conversations with business leaders, marketers, and authors for the QRCA VIEWS podcast. If you’d like to hear some of his author interviews, Uncorking a Story can be found on Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you get podcasts. Happy listening!

When I left the client side of the marketing business and became a moderator, I faced a challenge that many new moderators faced—the request for a tape from a prospective client. Yes, I realize that I am dating myself here as there was a time back in the olden days where each group and interview that we conducted was recorded on a VHS tape (with audio backups on cassette!). This presented an ethical dilemma, as the work we do is so sensitive that we just can’t share a recording with anyone outside of our clients’ organization.

I found what I thought was a creative solution to this challenge—I’d start a podcast where I’d find interesting people to interview, hold what I call “curiosity conversations” with them, and direct my clients to listen to those if they wanted to get a sense of my interviewing capabilities. Uncorking a Story was launched in 2013, featuring an interview with a Catholic priest who left behind a career in comedy at MTV for the spiritual life.

The podcast served its purpose well for a while, but as I built my book of business, I found I had fewer and fewer clients asking for work samples. Then, something serendipitous happened—while working with a publicist to help spread the word about my fourth novel, it was suggested that I use my podcast to interview some of his other clients about their work. I pivoted from interviewing interesting, yet somewhat random people to chatting with his A-list authors. Then something intriguing happened—my researcher instincts kicked in, and I started to see similarities between the A-listers I was interviewing and my friends and colleagues in the qualitative research business.

5 Shared Traits

  1. Curiosity. Author Nita Prose shared with me the story behind the story for her successful debut novel, The Maid. It all began when she walked into her hotel room, startled the room maid, and started to think about who she was as a person. On her flight home from that trip, she started outlining what would become the prologue to her debut novel on a cocktail napkin. Just like Prose followed her curiosity about that room maid, we researchers are at our best when we leave our discussion guide behind and follow our noses to some interesting areas. Jerry Garcia sang, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest places if you look at it right,” and I couldn’t agree more. So, let’s not consider our discussion guides to be sheet music—let’s think of them as starting points for some great improvisational jamming.
  2. Encouragement. Most authors share stories about elementary school teachers or librarians who recognized a talent for writing or a love of reading and who encouraged them to pursue both. The truth is, authors are always looking for some kind of validation that people like their work, and I believe moderators are similar. We work in an industry that requires mentorship as one can’t just fall into moderating. I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors in Liz Moore (my first boss), Susanne Henicke, a moderator who taught me all about how to speak to “consumers” as people, and Paul Jacobson, a moderator who taught me that working the back room was as important as working the front room. I’m grateful for the encouragement of these three people, and countless others, throughout my career.
  3. Vulnerability. Authors must open themselves up to vulnerability during the writing process, particularly when writing a memoir. We must tell authentic stories, and to do that, we have to bare a bit of our souls in the process. Authors also have to be open to criticism from editors, beta readers, and, eventually, book buyers, and all will be looking for different things in a story. Being open to constructive feedback is critical to creating good work.

Qualitative professionals as well must make themselves vulnerable. While we are immersed in our work of interviewing, we are being observed, watched by our clients and colleagues. In addition, as researchers, we must create an environment in which groups of strangers feel safe being vulnerable in front of one another, particularly when discussing personal issues such as finances or health.

But it’s not just about attending to others’ vulnerability in the front room; behind the glass, we need to remember that there could be creatives whose work is being evaluated by groups of strangers. Those whose work is being evaluated are very vulnerable during the research process, and it’s our duty as moderators to be respectful of that fact, particularly when participants are being critical of concepts and ads.

  1. Empathy. Authors must develop characters in such a way that the reader feels something toward them. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens introduces us to this miser of a character, Ebeneezer Scrooge. He’s totally unlikable as he turns away people looking for charity, including his nephew, who invites him to Christmas dinner. As Dickens develops this character, something beautiful happens—readers start to feel something for him. We feel sad over how his father treated him and over his lost love. By the end, we are as happy as he is just to be alive on Christmas morning.

It is the author’s job to make us feel for their characters, even if they are unlikable! Just as authors build empathy for characters, the most impactful thing a researcher can do is build a sense of deep understanding of the people we speak to. Yes, through research we can tell a client which of the three concepts is strongest and how it could be further optimized, but if we leave them feeling as if they really know the people we spoke to or as if they’ve walked a mile in respondents’ shoes, the research will pay dividends long after a concept is selected.

  1. Storytelling. I interviewed Debby Applegate, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Henry Ward Beecher, a social reformer who supported the abolition of slavery. Applegate shared with me that the initial contract for the book was cancelled because her writing was considered too poor for publication. This failure encouraged her to learn how to write mysteries and, after deciding to approach writing her biography of Beecher like a mystery writer, she secured another contract for the book and eventually wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize for it. As researchers, we can learn something from Applegate’s experience: while it is important to understand the facts and learnings that come out of our research, we must share them in a way that motivates our clients to action. In short, we must uncork good stories so that clients are inspired to act on our findings.

Working in the qualitative industry for a quarter of a century has enabled me to follow my curiosity to some very interesting areas. I’m grateful for the opportunity to apply my qualitative toolbox outside of marketing and into areas for which I have real passion—writing and publishing. Who would have thought that my worlds would intersect as much as they have? Certainly not me, but in hindsight it was inevitable given how much authors and qualitative professionals have in common.