12 Tips : How to Conduct an Interview

I get to make films and videos at a church. Our videos get used in our worship services, in student ministries, on the web, and get shared with lots of other churches.

Though the videos we do fall into a number of categories from animation to drama to documentary, I often find myself doing some kind of interview. There are lots of reasons to do an interview, too. It’s the “satisfied customer” who becomes a great spokesperson. It’s the powerful story of a changed life. It’s the Ph.D. who has studied language development in children. Interviews are with real people, and can bring authenticity to a sermon’s message.

But conducting an interview isn’t as easy as it looks. I’ve conducted them for years, and I’ve discovered some techniques that help me get the most compelling stories.

The focus of this is going to be how to conduct the actual interview. There’s a lot I could say about the location, how to set it up visually, how to light it, and how to mic it. I’m just going to talk, though, about how to interact with your interview subject. Here’s what I do.

1) Help the subject feel at home. Joke about the awkwardness. I’ll say, “All of us are used to speaking into a bank of lights, right? You’ve probably done this three times before breakfast!” And I’ll joke about how everyone says, “Just act natural,” when sitting on a stool in front of lights and cameras is probably the most unnatural thing someone can do!

Offer them a glass of water if they need it. Have it just off camera.

If putting on a lapel mic, leave the room if a member of the opposite sex has to run a wire up their clothing.

2) Check the environment. Make sure all cell phones are turned off. Check mic placement, making sure jewelry isn’t making noise against it. Check to make sure lighting is hitting the person correctly. Look for extreme reflections in glasses.

3) Explain to them how the interview works. I say something like, “I know you might not have ever done this before, but this is going to be easy. We’re just going to have a conversation. You can just look at me, in my eyes, and we’re going to talk, okay?”

4) Have them do 2 things: I’ll put on my headphones and have them count to 10, then I’ll have them SAY and SPELL their name. This lets me do three things: I’m checking audio levels, it makes sure I’ll get their name right on a graphic, and also helps me remember, if I find the tape 5 years later, who I was interviewing.

5) Then I’ll pray.  It may not be best in your line of work, but for what I do at a church, it’s a non-negotiable. It reminds us of why we’re talking in the first place, helps settle the subject’s spirit, and is a reminder of whose glory it is for.

6) I’ll give them one final thought. I’ll say, “Okay, let’s begin. Help me out in one simple way, if you can. If it’s possible, include my question in your answer, since my voice will be edited out. In other words, if I ask you, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and you answer, ‘Blue,’ the word ‘blue’ won’t make sense without my question. So answer by saying, ‘My favorite color is blue.’” People will likely forget this during the interview, and that’s okay. You may need to stop them at the get-go, and say, “I’m sorry, could you start that over, and say, ‘My favorite color is…’ at the beginning of it?”

7) Then start asking questions. Here’s the best starting question: “What’s your story?” Why is this a good question? Most people know why they’re there. They know why they’re being interviewed. And it’s their story, so they can tell it. It just gets them talking. Sometimes, this is the only question you need to ask! Some people just take it from there. But the best thing is, it gets them talking, and comfortable. They may not say anything usable, but it helps you get to know them, and gets them comfortable talking on camera.

8) Remember to ask open ended questions. “How old were you when the house fire happened?” is a closed question. It has a simple answer. Here’s a better question: “Tell me a little about what your life was like just before the fire.” Phrases like, “Describe for me…” or “Tell me about…” or “Could you tell the story of how…” get people talking. Guide people. Help them tell their story if they don’t naturally know how to tell it. Some people are linear. Some are scattered. Some speak in easy to edit soundbites. Some can’t say a complete sentence. It’s your job to help them find the words to tell their story.

9) Converse with your face. You’ve got to stay quiet while they respond. This is surprisingly hard to do. We naturally want to respond with various grunts and sounds that let the other person know they’re being heard. So let your face encourage them. Raise your eyebrows. Smile. Nod sympathetically. Try to have a conversation, even though it’s really a monologue. But let your face speak when your mouth can’t.

10) Have your final product in mind; you may need to circle around again. Occasionally, I’ll know that from our 20 minute interview, we’re needing a 30 second video. And if a person is rambling or I know it will be hard to edit, at the very tail end of the interview, I’ll say this: “I want you to try something. Just for kicks, let’s imagine this: We’ve been talking for quite a while about your story. Imagine you have only a minute to tell someone the gist of your story. Could you do that for me? Your story is really great, and it may just help me in my editing to have you saying your story in a different way.”

If there’s one important thing you really need them to say, and they haven’t said it, just ask them! Here, it’s okay to have a closed question, too, if there’s a really specific thing you’re wanting to hear. Often I’m conducting an interview that someone else has set up, and there’s a specific story or piece of data that they’re looking for. So if you haven’t heard your subject say it, just ask! For instance, “You know, we’ve talked a lot about growing poverty in Johnson County. I heard a stat earlier, and I was wondering if I could just get a quick and simple statement saying, ‘The percentage of children under the poverty level has increased in our county by 53%.’” And then the person will say it, and you can edit it in. But I usually save these “clean up” questions for the end. It’s best to just let someone talk naturally.

11) One good question to end with: “Is there anything I’ve missed? Is there a question you were hoping I would ask, or something you think is important to share that my questions might not have arrived at?” You’d be surprised. Often, someone gives an overall summary or a closing statement that’s pure gold. Sometimes, they shrug and say, “Nope, that’s it.” But asking this question allows that you may not know the whole story, and that blind spot may make you miss the best part of the story.

12) Keep rolling. So you’re all done. You’re wrapping up. You breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank you so much for giving us a few minutes of your time. That was fantastic. Thanks so much.” And then, a lot of times, someone will actually continue. They will say, “Well, you know, this was such a life changing event for me. I can’t believe what God has done here…” and it’s almost as though, once the “interview” is over, they just start talking freely! So after it’s officially wrapped and I’m just saying nice pleasantries, I keep the tape rolling. The subject will sometimes start speaking more freely or more concisely or more honestly than they have during the entire “official” interview time. The first couple of times this phenomenon happened, I had already stopped rolling tape. But I learned to keep recording, and to shut up if they keep speaking, and grab one or two more soundbites that might be great. It doesn’t always happen that I get anything usable, but it’s happened enough times to make me keep rolling until they actually stand up and have taken their mic off.

So there you have it. These are the things I find myself doing, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Your mileage will vary. But hopefully these tips will help you get the most out of the time you spend interviewing someone.

1 Comment

  1. This is such practical advice Rob! Good on ya.
    I love the last one, “keep rolling”. When Creighton and I interviewed Adam last year, (do you remember this?), we turned the camera off and then the two of them sat there and dropped gold nugget after gold nugget regarding campus ministry.

    I was so bummed we did not keep rolling!

    Definitely will do that ALWAYS from now on.

    Hope all is well. Miss you and the Resurrection fam. Added Josh Knight as an author on my blog. Perhaps together we can generate some conversation.

    Hug the wife and kids for me. ;”)

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