When I first started learning video storytelling, I took a class at the Maine Workshops. Our instructor, a crazy guy from LA who worked for the E-channel, broke us up into teams to go out and get man-on-the-street interviews for our class video project, The Cameras of Camden. The video was about surveillance cameras used to monitor people in public spaces. My task was to query random people on the street and ask them what they thought about “being watched”.
The “documentary gods” were definitely riding shotgun with me that day. I came back to the classroom with sound bite gems, which ended up driving 80 % of the video’s narrative. In the process, I found out that I was good at asking questions and more importantly, I was really good at eliciting great responses.
There’s more to getting a good interview than just asking questions. It has to do with your rapport with your subjects. Interviewers are not interchangeable. Give two interviewers the same set of questions to ask the same subject, you will most likely get very different answers. To be a good interviewer is to be a good listener. People sense when someone is interested in what they are saying – or not. If you are genuine and really care about someone’s story, it comes through in the way you engage them and ask the questions. That’s what makes every interview unique – it’s the chemistry of the moment.
Here are some helpful tips for doing interviews:
- Choose a suitable location. Pick an environment that is quiet and that you have control over. You should also strive to pick a setting that will provide more information about your subject.
- Ask leading questions – not ones with yes and no answers. Don’t ask the subject “Do you like school?” Ask them “What do you like about school?”
- I don’t usually insert myself into my interviews so I ask my subjects to paraphrase my questions in their answers. For example: If I ask my subject: “How many children do you have?” they shouldn’t answer by saying “3”. They should answer by saying “I have 3 children”.
- Don’t step on your subjects’ lines. After your subject stops speaking, pause before you ask your next question. Instruct your subject to do the same, pause before they start answering your question. This will allow your subject to collect his or her thoughts. It will also give your editor a clean place to cut the dialog without overlapping voices. Another benefit is that many times those pauses will provoke your subject to relay more interesting information.
- Be quiet and use non-audible gestures to affirm your subject’s responses. Don’t utter things like, ok, hmmm, oh etc.
- Be a good listener. Sometimes the best questions come out of listening to your subject. Many times it’s something a subject says that will lead me to ask a question that I may not have thought of.