You’re listening to the Video StudentGuy show and I’m the guy, Paul Lyzun
In this episode I’m going to introduce the first in a series shows covering Interviewing techniques for storytelling. My own personal interests lie in documentary filmmaking, but it doesn’t matter if you’re interviewing people for video, audio or print, you’ll find information in this series that will serve you well. Whether you’re doing phone research or sitting opposite your subject in a comfy chair surrounded by cameramen, lighting engineers and hair dressers, I’m sure you’ll hear something useful.
Yes, there will be a tad bit of technical information about lighting setup, mic placement and camera operation, I am, after all, all about process. but I also plan to look at the best practices for making preparations before the interview, such as saving time and money and how to effectively manage your subject to get the most out of your brief time together. I plan to discuss at length the different types of questions you can ask and which ones are the most effective under what circumstances.
I also want to talk about developing your relationship with your subject. I want you to consider what the interview process feels like from their perspective and how you can anticipate their needs and treat them with the respect they deserve – all of which will ultimately help you get the interview that you really want
Before I begin outlining the substance of this series I want to talk about interviewing on a more fundamental level.
First, if you don’t already know, people love to talk about themselves. A lot of people, and you may know some of them, will tell you all kinds of things without any prompting, much of which you’d prefer not to know at all.
Everyone is looking for someone who will listen to their problems, or their frustrations, most times because they don’t feel heard. Or, perhaps they want recognition as an individual who has something valid to contribute. And there are egocentric individuals who push this need to talk all the way into the red, giving you a trapped, helpless feeling. In this case you are getting a lot of irrelevant information and less story, more noise less signal.
In both cases though, conversations of this kind are less of an interview and more of a verbal mugging. One of the most important things about being an interviewer is that you are (supposed to be) the one in control. You are responsible for posing the questions, directing the answers and interrupting the conversation. Indeed, there are some who don’t believe an interview should be a conversation at all, instead, looking at the verbal interchange as a one way exchange of information. That’s not an invalid perspective, but it’s very narrow. Interviews like that can resemble a wrestling match where the subject is constantly trying to insert their agenda in opposition to the ground rules presented at the beginning of the interview while the interviewer is trying hard to rein in irrelevant information.
There is only so much time after all.
I believe that the best approach to interviewing, and this isn’t always possible in practice, I know, is to develop a relationship built on trust. I will revisit this idea from time to time during this series so let me take the time now to explain what I mean in some detail.
There are many presuppositions that we make when we meet someone the first time, which are based on relationships that we’ve already experienced. From the moment we interact, even if it’s a comment by a mutual acquaintance or a passing nod in the hallway, we are building on those presuppositions, remodeling assumptions and creating an identity, that may or may not be accurate, but which, all the same we believe.
Once we begin communicating on a personal level, particularly through conversation, there will be many opportunities to amend our perceptions for good or bad. Hopefully, over time, and given enough time, the good will outweigh the bad.
With interviews there isn’t a lot of time. The relationship may begin immediately when the interview begins and ends as you say goodbye. Or it could begin earlier and end much later. Or never end.
My point is, that an interview is a very short time to develop a relationship; it’s all you have. Add the fact that you, as an interviewer, require the cooperation of the subject, there is a lot of things that can happen during your brief time together that could cause problems and maybe derail the interview.
I’m talking about social capital here, the cushion of grace we continue to pad through kind; generous; considerate acts that don’t get noticed on the surface, but instinctually and emotionally are counted and balanced.
This happens whether you know or not and being proactive in this regard will make it much easier to keep your subject open and cooperative. And by that I mean you will be able to retain the trust of your subject for the duration of the interview and hopefully beyond.
You need to be trustworthy. I’m not going to define just what that is for you, you have to decide how much effort you need to put into building trustworthiness. But, and I will say this more than once during this series, if your interview fails, it will be your fault, not your subjects. If you can’t achieve your investigative goals through one or many conversations with an individual, I’m guessing you made one or a series of mistakes along the way. There is no value in blaming the subject.
If you extend an invitation for mutual trust and continue to support it, people will respond. Not the same every time for every person certainly, perhaps never the same, but if there is ever a break in that trust, it should not be because of you.
Oh, and I don’t mean that you’re required to be a doormat, although that is a failure on your part too, if that happens. Trust goes both ways, if you don’t receive the same as you give then the relationship is a problem, which could become a train wreck.
The thing is, it should never have gotten to that point in the first case. Maybe they were the wrong person to interview and you should have chosen someone else, possibly been more selective and perceptive before a meeting ever occurred or a commitment to continue was made. And then there’s also the possibility with some consideration that you can rescue a failing relationship, even if it’s in a nosedive.
Just keep in in mind, the interview is your baby, it fills your need. Knowing what need the interview meets for your subject is also important, but it won’t sustain your subject if the relationship goes horribly awry.
I just want you to understand that it’s your interview, your responsibility and your success or failure. If you accept this as true, you have the opportunity to prepare and act in a way so that the outcome is exactly what you want while at the same time satisfying everyone else.
And by everyone else I mean this goes beyond one subject and one interview. People are watching, word gets around, and you are developing a reputation. If you’re tagged as someone who promises and doesn’t deliver, your reputation, your credibility is mud.
That’s my recipe for a successful interview, in a nutshell. Treat your subject with respect and expect the same, cooperate toward a shared goal and find as much common ground as possible.
There are currently 9 episodes being planned for this series. This may change as time goes on because honestly, I haven’t written them all yet. But I have identified 9 discreet topics that I want to present. Here they are:
Or Preplanning. This is where most of your work should be done. It’s where it’s supposed to take place. Everything you do should be considered at this point and planned out. Whether you’re a one-man show or managing a production team you should consider every action you need to take and anticipate any problems that could occur.
- Some of the more time consuming long term projects will include:
- researching the story, including
- identifying information resources
- determining what questions need to be asked
- refining the scope of the story you want to tell
- and how you will use the interview to help tell that story
- researching the story, including
- Also important,
- choosing the interview subject(s)
- finding the location for the interview
- choosing the equipment you will need to use
- and of course some practical information about developing your trust relationship
There are two things to consider when approaching question preparation
- How you want to run your interview
- What kind of information do you want from your subject
- history, data, facts
- As I said earlier, people like to talk, they give it away for free
- what they don’t like is being used or surprised
- so as I present the various types of questions you can ask ,I’ll also consider how to use them so they will prompt the answers you want
Managing your subject during the interview
- Once your subject arrives at the location for the interview you need to consider the trust relationship, because they are vulnerable
- they’re in an unfamiliar place
- about to be interrogated by a stranger
- there are lots of things to consider from this point until you say thank you and shake hands.
- they’re in an unfamiliar place
- You should be prepared to look after their physical needs and comforts
- establish guidelines and identify who has what power
- Involve the subject in the interview process
- let them know what will happen before it happens and offer them opportunities to contribute
- you should have offeed them a list of things to prepare for before coming to interview
- however, not the list of the questions you’ll be asking
- Listen for authentic responses in your exchange of information
- Pay attention to everything
Interview Production Concerns
I wanted to present the production side of the interview separately from the talent side because for the most part the two don’t mix.
- There may be some mild curiosity on the part of the subject, but you want to make sure everything that is taking place outside of the conversation the two of your are having is not a distraction, even if that distraction consists of a memo recorder, or a pen and notepad
- For that reason you need to have a schedule and a checklist of tasks
- So you can stay on time
- Setup quickly
- Make sure things are working before you begin talking
- Particularly important if you are working alone
- I’m going to discuss Lighting and audio capture issues in this episode, but only lightly
- I plan to cover them in greater depth in separate shows
In broadcasting and radio Post refers to editing footage and recordings
I don’t plan to go there, but I do want you be aware of easily overlooked details that could make meeting deadlines difficult
- For instance:
- don’t lose track of your media
- plan a specific location for storing your recorded media immediately
- don’t lose track of your media
- during the interview someone should have been writing down the time code for usable material so it’s easy to find quickly
- that information should be logged once you return to your home base
- Also, general notes of the experience should be recorded
- that identify any problems that occurred which may be relevant to this stage of the process, before they’re forgotten
- Remain in contact with the subject
- Remind them that it was a positive experience and encourage them to be willing to repeat it if necessary
- If you are recording a video interview light is critical
- I’ll be discussing the kinds of lights you may encounter
- I’m going to describe how you can use light, even daylight to make your subject look good on video
- And I’m going to go into detail on how to use a lighting kit to get the best results for the camera
- By the way, the use of artificial light for an interview has it’s own problems so I’ll cover some of the common pitfalls when using lighting in an enclosed space
Audio has always been the poor stepchild of video, however in Radio or audio podcasts it gets all the respect.
- Regardless of the final platform, good audio is the make or break piece in the media production process
- if you can’t hear the speakers, for whatever reason, there is no story
- In this show I’ll talk about the kind of mics you can use and what kind of sound they create
- there are general mics and specialized mics and they all have the place
- the position of the mic is just as important
- And there are other issues I want to cover about visibility, ambient sound and other minor details that can make a big difference in the professional feel of your production
- What is B-roll?
- in this show I’ll explain what it is and how it can help your tell your story I
- I don’t want to give it all away now, but it includes creating context between the interview subject and the larger story
- Also, figuring out where to find B-roll and how to use it in the edit, is a mystery to a lot of people
- I’ll do my best to clear that up.
- I want to end the series with a consideration of a journalist who is making a big impact in the area of investigative reporting through his approach to the type of questions posed to the interview subject
- John Sawatsky is an interesting character and an impressive force in the Investigative Journalism world
- he believes that a lot of on screen online interviewers are mostly a waste of breath (my words, not his)
- he also considers questions to be tools for gathering information and that every journalist should know what each one does in order to get the most out of an interview
As you see from the items on my list, which is by no means exhaustive, interviewing people for storytelling purposes is a deep and multifaceted endeavor. As much detail as I may cover during this series I don’t intend for it to be of use to everyone. As much as possible I plan to describe the specific circumstances you would need to take a particular action. Further I’m sure you’ll discover on your own that some of these suggestions don’t hold water.
The truth is, you need to know how to read people and you need to be prepared, to know the difference between what you think is interesting and what you really need. There’s only so much time and good will available in each interview and you have to make your choices wisely.
If nothing else, what I do hope you’ll gain from these episodes is information that will provide a clear path to whatever storytelling destination you are headed toward.
I’m Paul, the Video StudentGuy
Thanks for listening,
I’ll talk to your later