I’ve written a lot about how to shoot video interviews (here, here and here, for example) but not a lot about how NOT to shoot video interviews. Here are some advanced “don’t do this” tips for you to go out and not do immediately:
1. Don’t tell them what to say. In commercial focus groups a few years back, we showed two different sets of “testimonial” type spots. One set featured absolutely real people, who said real things about the product. The other featured people saying more positive things about the product, but they were actors, and the lines were written. Focus group participants told the moderator that both sets of testimonials were fake, and they thought everyone got paid, or were actors reading lines. Nonetheless, they rated the spots with real people saying real things as more likable and more believable.
My theory is that cameras are lie detectors of a sort. They magnify the facial detail that gives us clues about the speaker’s thoughts. Even if we’re not aware of it, we can tell what’s real and true, and we react to it differently. Ask real questions, get real answers, and your interviews will have real impact. (Some metaphorical support for this point of view: watch Richard Linklater’s should-have-won-best-picture Boyhood. See how different it feels to watch actors really age vs. putting on makeup.)
2. Don’t do that “repeat the question back” thing. You often hear interviewers tell their subjects to repeat back the question in their answer. Something like: “When I ask you what your favorite food is, say ‘My favorite food is cheesecake.'” The result: material that’s sometimes easier to edit, but often looks stilted. Here’s a better idea: don’t ask a question that can be answered with one single word. Instead, have a conversation with your subject. If you get a one word answer, follow up with, “Tell me about the perfect cheesecake.” or “When was the first time you tasted cheesecake?” Both open up the conversation. Keep track in your head or on paper of whether you’re getting what you need. Remember that you can edit to massage the final interview.
3. Don’t settle for masturbatory comments. Chevrolet ran a series of ads this Spring in which “real people” looked at Chevy trucks and said things like “It’s great.” and “I’m surprised.” It was about as interesting as it sounds. You may think your job is to get them to say nice things about the product, but your real job is to get them to express relatable truths about the product that will intrigue viewers. And trust me, “it’s great!” doesn’t qualify. Blow past the superficial chaff and get to the wheat by asking “Why?” Why was the truck great? Why were they surprised? “Why?” forces people to explain themselves. You begin to see their point of view and hear their stories. In an interview, that’s gold.
4. Don’t rush. When I do testimonial spots I spend a minimum of 20 minutes with subjects. For character interviews for an unscripted tv series, maybe 40 minutes. This lets me develop a rapport with the subject and they have time to relax and be themselves. Truth always plays better on TV.
5. Don’t be rigid. Flexibility makes your subjects more comfortable and more attentive. You can both relax into a nice back and forth, following the conversational angles of interest. This brings out your interviewees’ unique ways of looking at the world. If you stick strictly to your question list, you’ll miss surprises that are more interesting than you could ever imagine.
6. Don’t abdicate responsibility. It’s your job to pull information out of your subjects by guiding a great interview. It’s not their job to know what you need, or try to please you. Practice, be open, and remember who’s driving the bus.
There are no bad interview subjects, just bad directors. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Some people don’t interview well. But in my experience we’re talking at most 2% of the population. If you’re having trouble with your video interviews more often, you might try not doing a few new things from this list.
Do you know more things not to do in interviews? This is an excellent time to comment, below.
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