Our last blog covered How to Tell a Story with Video, so I wanted to follow that up with some real-world, useful hints and tips to help tell those stories. I’m going to start with how you can best achieve a good video interview by relaxing your subject on camera. I’m not talking technical tips, for example a good boom mic may be more relaxing than putting on a radio mic, and I’m not talking about lighting or framing, but the psychology behind getting an engaging interview, which is a real art form and unfortunately not very easy to get out of a manual.
Some people are natural born interviewees, but most of us are not. No, most people do not like the idea of a camera dissecting our every move and syllable… and it’s only natural. And it’s quite unpredictable who will perform well in front of camera. Even the most outgoing person can abruptly clam up under the glare of a full-frame sensor. So I have compiled a list of tips and tricks to try and get each interview to run smoothly. I like to think that I can tell a good story once it gets to the edit, and that has hugely informed what questions I ask in the interview – and being confident with where you stand as an interviewer is at least half the battle. The other half being this mini arsenal of techniques, and I’d like to share them with you.
1. Set up fully before the interviewee enters
Get all the technical stuff out of the way beforehand, and when they do come in leave it to the camera op or assistant as much as possible – so you can chat to the interviewee on their arrival. I always try and get another person with my on an interview for this one reason, I need to give the subject my attention. If they come in and have to hang around, wondering where to go and when it will all start as you fiddle with lights, mics and lenses then tension will begin to mount. This just takes planning!! I like to give it at least an hour’s setup, probably an hour and a half, and ensure to tell the client that beforehand, making sure they are not expecting everything to start as soon as you walk in.
2. When the interviewee arrives, make small talk (and the first point puts you in a position to do this)
Give them your attention, ask them how their day has been. Your intention is to achieve the following:
- • Distract them from the impending interview
- • Form a connection between the two of you. Where are they going on holiday, any plans for the weekend? Try and find common interests
- • Get them to say ‘yes’. Saying ‘yes’ makes them feel good, again it works towards forming this connection between the two of you. Are you having a good day? Did you find us OK?
3. Break the ice
When you sit down, make a joke to acknowledge the absurdity of what is an uncomfortable situation. You are in it together, and you appreciate it’s odd and off-putting ‘Are these lights bright enough for you, or should we get a few more in?’. Or something about the make-up, or all the cameras, or everyone looking at you.
4. Explain what you want from the process
How long will the finished film be? Will they be the only person in it? Who will watch it and where? For example, it’s not going on TV! It’s on the company website and prospective clients will see this. And keep it brief! People think they might need to talk for minutes or even hours on every point. I tell people that there is no way we will use more than between 10-30 seconds on any one topic or sub-topic. It’s not like a conversation, or a presentation. If you think are running out of steam on a point, just end it! Don’t let it peter out, it doesn’t have to dovetail in with another point, keep it on one point, I can edit them together. I want answers short, and I want definite endings to points. So if you feel you only have a short answer – then you are the prefect candidate! Give me your short answer and we will move on, content.
5. ‘You cannot fail!’
I tell the subject that they are hereby incapable of giving a bad answer. Because it’s my job to cut them all out. This is not live, or real life – all people will hear is the good stuff, even if the other 99% is stumbling and repetition. And if they get the answer wrong, we simply do it again.
6. Get them a drink
Be it a glass of water, or a tea or a coffee. Not only will it help relax them, and caffeine will certainly help things along, but if their speech begins to sound dry and clicky well frankly that’s one to be avoided – so keep them hydrated. Taking a mini drink break every so often also helps interrupt the high levels of concentration, and gives the brain well needed little rests.
7. Don’t look at the answers!
The interviewee needs to know topics and ballpark conversations sure, but we do not want rehearsed answers. A shortcut to editing a film quickly and cheaply is by scripting answers… but no-one will buy it! So it’s a waste of money. And this is a big lesson hidden in all this: there is a reason every documentary is not scripted, and wouldn’t it be easy to edit if they were? In fact we call that ‘drama’, for which you ought to practice for a few years in front of camera before attempting. Ultimately people want to watch real people reacting to real situations, we can all spot a fake a mile off.
8. Ask questions you will never use
Start with getting the interviewee to state their name and title for the edit, and anyone can do that. Then follow up with an easy question that plays to their strengths, like, ‘why did you get into this business?’ or something slightly unexpected that will take their mind off the formality of the situation – ‘What interests you in your work?’. These have no right or wrong answer, and are things on which they are the utmost authority.
9. Intentionally veer off-piste
Be interested in the answers and the subject, and then make it conversational. Listen out for anything that interests you in an answer, and respond to that with an off-the-cuff question. Getting that more informal conversational tone is what we’re after, and also showing an interest and that you are genuinely listening goes a long way. And further to that point – listen! Really listen, it is your job, you are getting paid to listen. You are not just a fountain of questions, for this 10 or 15 minutes you as the interviewer must be on the ball as much as the interviewee, be right there in the moment with them. And maintain eye contact during the answer, nod (do not say ‘yes!’) and let the answer absolutely finish, sometimes the interviewee comes out with the best stuff right at the end if just left to keep talking. Just ask Alan Whicker.
10. If the answer is not working by take 3, move on!
Try coming back to it again at the end and see if they can come at it from a different angle. In fact, I usually go back and attempt another version of the initial question, just in case, as by this point they will have got into their flow, seen how the land lies, and the end will practically be in sight (if I have missed any metaphors please let me know in the comments below).
Then there are a couple of extra super-tips to consider. Roll the camera way before and way after the interview starts /stops – you may mine a little hidden gold there, especially with kids. If the sit-down interview is an absolute non-starter, get them doing something. I once had to interview a pub landlady. You’d have thought by nature she’d love a chat, but in front of all the lights the flow just stopped. So we put her behind the bar, pouring us pints, turned it into a bar chat, and the crisis was averted. Doing something physically distracts the mind from all the tension, especially and preferably if it’s a task they are very familiar with. For example driving, I once saw Wayne Rooney talking naturally and engagingly in a manner (like never before) by driving the interviewer round his home neighbourhood. Or take James Corden sticking the subject in the passenger seat, though granted he helps break the ice with a little karaoke – which if all else fails may always be an option.
If you have any further questions or feedback, or if there’s anything you feel I have missed or would be useful to add, do let me know in the comments.
If you want to get in touch for a quote for video production, feel free to get in touch.