How to capture meaningful quotes and testimonials for a compelling narrative

We’ve all been there. It’s 5pm, and the draft of the report is due tomorrow. Someone says “don’t we have any quotes we can use?” You frantically shoot off an email to get something, anything you can use by tomorrow to spice up a dry report full of facts and figures. What you get back is a blah, generic platitude, something along the lines of “We never could have succeeded without your help”. You’ve run out of time, however, so you hastily slap it into the report.

If done right, however, meaningful, well-structured quotes can be a key to telling a compelling, rich story. But how do you get those elusive words from reluctant, hard-to-reach beneficiaries?

The main trick is preparation – not weeks of refining the perfect question, but at least a little structure and thought before soliciting input. Here are a few things to help guide you to get the most from your quotes:

Define what story you want to tell

This will help you to focus your questions and avoid those meaningless, generic responses  that don’t provide context for your work or move your story forward. Stories can range from showing changes in behaviour, attitude, or knowledge over time to stories that give insight in to the value of an intervention. Once defined, it’s easier to determine the kind of feedback you will need, the methods to retrieve it, and where to place the it in your narrative. I sometimes go as far as to do the writing in full first, identifying the places where quotes would help tell the story.

That said, sometimes there is an opportunity to collect feedback that can inform your story at a later stage. Don’t want to waste an opportunity to collect first-hand information; collecting quotes in advance can save you some time with your narrative later and can give on-going insight in to how your services or interventions are being received.

Determine who the best person to interview is

Finding the right person to interview is critical to getting a quote that tells your story. To find authentic feedback, widen your pool so responses are gleaned from people involved in the work from different perspectives. Keep in mind the best person to tell your story might not be the direct beneficiary of your work, but could also be your staff, staff from partner organisations, government officials, community leaders, or secondary beneficiaries.

 Ask questions in the right way

There are numerous ways to get the information you need, it just takes some weighing up of the options to select the best one. Email or online surveys may be best for recipients you can’t physically get to, but a trade off is losing the ability to ask follow-up questions in real time if you aren’t getting the information you need. In-person interviews can be great at getting nuanced information, but it is harder to capture exact quotes and people may be less forthcoming in their responses. Other factors might include who asks the questions, what language the questions are asked in, whether you conduct one-on-one interviews or ask questions in a group environment, etc.

Don’t shy away from the critical

Not many people want to read a story without challenge.  That’s not to say you have to dwell on the negative, but if an interview brings up a critical issue, you can use it as an opportunity to show how you addressed or overcame it. Similarly, don’t exclusively use quotes that gush praise about your organisation – it will sound like the respondents were just saying what they thought you wanted to hear (which is likely the case). Finding a balance between the two is key.

Select, paraphrase and edit quotes for language

You don’t have to use all of a respondent’s answers as direct quotes. You can instead use the bulk of their answers as background and context to craft a story or profile, and choose a select few nuggets to use as quotes. This is especially useful when the language is a challenge, or when there is a lot of extraneous information included in the response that doesn’t tie neatly to your story. If you’re asking so many questions, you’ll likely get far more information than you need for one report, so keep it somewhere accessible so you can pull it out and repurpose the information for your annual report, a donor appeal, or a success story blog post.

There is nothing wrong with polishing up a quote so that it is understood by your readers, as long as you don’t change the meaning of the quote. Where possible, you should send the quote back to the person to get their sign off.


Use clear attribution

Best practice is to use a full name and title where possible. A pseudonym might be necessary to use where the identity of a respondent needs to be protected; this is important to clarify with respondents as consent is key.

Match your quotes with compelling photos

When possible, pair your quotes with pictures of the respondents or the topic of their story. Where you’re talking about sensitive subject matters, you can use abstract photos (shadows, the backs of people, hands, etc.) to illustrate a point. Make sure any photos with clearly identifiable faces have signed approvals for use. Click here to see how you can collect images effectively to tell your story. 

So the next time you start the process of writing, take a few minutes to brainstorm who you should interview and what questions you think would help tell your story best. If you ask the right people the right questions, you will undoubtedly wind up with a stronger narrative.

About the Author:

Jennifer Geib is a graphic designer and writer working with non-profits and changemakers worldwide to more effectively communicate their message.  For more information on her work and services see