Even though I had worked for decades as a print journalist, I had to relearn how to interview people for video stories.
A good interview is a conversation, not an interrogation. In a two-way conversation, both people talk a lot. Sometimes in sentence fragments. Sometimes with a one-word response. When I interview someone for a written story, this mix works just fine. I record the interview, transcribe it and then sift through the transcript for the best quotes. Material that is more complicated, or less compelling, can be paraphrased. If the person stumbles through a sentence but I know what they meant, I can just paraphrase that part.
A video story relies much more heavily on the person’s uninterrupted, unedited responses. Remember, television is not our model. TV news and interview shows tend to focus as much on the interviewer as the subject. By contrast, in a short video story the interviewer should disappear. Usually, your voice will not be heard and you will not be seen in the final video. Your job is to help a person tell their story well. Ask good questions, listen actively and ask good follow-up questions rather than simply working from a list. Then stay out of the way.
Editing video can take far more time than the interview itself. But with a few organizational techniques during the interview, you can minimize editing time. Most good stories contain a few simple elements: characters, complication (or conflict), a key moment or event, and resolution. Quite often, those elements occur in that order. If you arrange an interview in the same linear order — a story with a beginning, middle and end — you can minimize the amount of cutting and rearranging of pieces. Here’s a simple framework you can build from:
Character(s): Ask the person to state their name, where they are from and what they do.
Complication / conflict: What was your life like before?
Key moment / event: What happened? What changed for you?
Resolution: What does your life look like now as a result of ____?
Before you start
- Let them practice before the camera is on. Start with an easy question — even as simple as, “What did you have for breakfast today?” Get them comfortable talking.
- Tell them the types of questions you will ask. No surprises or ambushes.
- Tell them what the interview goal is. Be a team. You are working together to clearly tell the story.
- Remind them to speak in complete sentences. Your voice will not be part of the video, so their responses need to make it clear what the question was.
- Don’t make them feel like they’re in a TV studio. Use minimal lighting and audio equipment. Minimize the number of other people in the room. It should feel like a normal conversation, not a performance. Put them at ease.
- Minimize or get away from background noise: fans, heating and cooling vents, music, traffic, birds and insects. Noises that are hardly noticeable when you’re doing the interview can ruin the recorded result.
- If you can control the room temperature, keep it normal to cool. Don’t make someone sweat.
- When setting up the camera, pay attention to visual elements. Does the light fall pleasantly on the person’s face? (From the side is ideal.) Is the background free of distractions? If the person wears eyeglasses, can you arrange things to eliminate glare or distracting reflection?
- Tell the person to look at you, not at the camera. It’s not a hostage video.
- Remind them: “This is not live TV. If you mess up, or if I mess up, we can just pause and then start the sentence again.”
During the interview
- Ask open-ended questions. How or why rather than yes or no. You want the person to tell you a story rather than just give a quick answer.
- Never interrupt. Ask a question, then stay silent — even if the person pauses momentarily.
- Think about pacing. Leave short pauses between when the person stops talking and when you start. This reduces editing time by making the cuts easier.
- Be aware of changing audio background and pause if necessary. (I once learned this the hard way when conducting an interview at twilight in Staten Island, N.Y. A swarm of locusts flew by, and the sound of their buzzing wings obliterated the voice of the person I was interviewing. The video was visually beautiful, but unintelligible.)
Working with a translator
In an international context, the language barrier introduces another challenge to the goal of having a natural conversation and getting accurate quotes. Much relies on your translator. Tell him or her that you are looking for word-for-word translation, not a paraphrased summary. Later, if the interview is transcribed by someone who understands the interviewee’s language, you can sharpen the quotes even further.
A great way to end any interview is to ask: “What else should I have asked you?” Often the answer will be “nothing.” But sometimes you may discover an aspect to the story that you otherwise would have missed. It’s also a way to honor the person you are interviewing by giving them control of when the conversation ends.
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