Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes we have to work on it, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but we’ve gotten really good at identifying that moment. It’s that breakthrough moment when someone gives us a quote or a story that is a genuine insight into their life.
It’s what makes Humans of WP one of my favorite projects. An adaptation of Humans of New York, HOWP is a blog where we feature portraits and stories from the William Paterson University community.
We developed the idea last summer when we were looking for ways to best utilize the newest member of our team. HOWP was the perfect fit for Catalina; her stunning portrait photography and up-for-whatever attitude meant she was down to ride out the unpredictability of a project that we didn’t fully understand yet.
In the nearly eight months that we’ve been working on this, we’ve come a long way in learning what works and what doesn’t. We know, for example, that having too many of us surrounding someone at once can be intimidating, and that using a voice recording app is way easier than fighting to write down each exact quote, and that people who look like they don’t want to be bothered usually have the best things to say.
It all starts with the approach. The hardest part is trying not to sound like I want to convert you to my sketchy new cult. We’ve tried a few approaches in the past:
“Hi, do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Hi, I have a weird question for you.”
“Hi, are you a student here?”
But what we’ve actually found is that the words we say are almost totally irrelevant. What really matters is the energy we put out. Conveying that mix of positivity and vulnerability is the real secret to getting total strangers to let us take their photos and share their stories.
Finding what each person is about is the most exhilarating part of this experience. Every conversation and experience is different, but we have a few go-to questions
“What is your greatest struggle right now?”
“What could you talk about all day and not get sick of?”
“What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?”
The trick is that it’s not even about these questions, we ask them only to encourage people to think about themselves and their experiences in a different way. Rarely does an answer to one of these questions make it onto the blog. Rather, it is pushing further into their answers that gets to the heart of what they’re about.
We’ve been so incredibly lucky that so many students have been willing to open up and share even just a small part of their lives with us.
If you had told me four years ago that I would be approaching and conducting interviews with dozens of strangers each week, I would have had a Britney-Spears-2006-style meltdown. And yet, somehow, getting to small talk with people I’ve never met has become one of my favorite things to do. I think the secret might be that I don’t really see people as strangers anymore, everyone I meet now is a human of WP.