Video Interview Tips And Techniques: Getting the Best of People on Video

Are you wondering how to interview people on video? How to get the best out of them. Maybe you’re interviewing someone for a documentary, Youtube or a client video and you’re concerned can you get what you need? Will they choke up on you, not give you what you want? Will they be too stiff or use way too much jargon?

Interviewing is a bit of an art but actually, quite fun once you get into. I mean you’re a person and you’re interviewing another person who probably has great stories to tell. The trick is to ease them into telling them.

They’re not Actors

Actors are trained to work under pressure. Say this, then go here, stand and then do this, with these emotions. But your subject, they’re not trained. More likely then not, they’re not used to being on camera at all. They’re going to be nervous. Therefore, you want them to be as comfortable as possible. As natural as possible. This means take away as much pressure from them as you can. Don’t add anymore then you already are by pointing a camera at them and asking them questions.

How can we do this?

If you can, interview them in their own space, home, office. A place they’re already comfortable with.

It’s usually a good idea to ask them to state their name and title on camera for your records. But don’t have them turn and say it to the camera. It makes them feel interrogated.

It makes more sense to ask them when you start the interview and they say it to you. It may sound small but all of this helps because we’re used to being around cameras, they’re not. Ease them into being comfortable.

Sound Checks

Sound checks are weird and technical. Having them say testing 123. It’s a good opportunity to help them feel at ease. I just ask them what they had for breakfast. Even if they don’t eat breakfast they usually say something about coffee or tea and you have them speaking normally. You’re easing them into being at ease

Ask Open questions

Ask a simple question, you’ll get a simple answer.

Here’s an example from a good friend and award-winning documentarian Veronica Moscoso.

Me: “Where did you make your first documentary”?
Veronica: “Ecuador.”

They’re called closed or leading questions and usually, they lead to yes, no, or just simple information. 
Information isn’t necessarily interesting and a narrator can give that if it’s needed. What is the result you really want? Why are you interested in this information?

Probably, what you really want is a story. Ask open questions that lead your subject to give you stories. People are full of wonderful stories. A better question for Veronica would have been “How did your first documentary come about”?

Other examples of open questions are “Tell me what happened” or How would you explain this situation to people?
It’s open vs specific and leading.

Put the Question in your Answer?

There’s a tip out there to ask the subject to include the question in their answer. Makes sense since you’re not going to hear the interviewer. Some documentaries swear by it, others don’t.

Barry Hampe, author of Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos, doesn’t agree with it.

First off, it puts a burden on the subject which isn’t their responsibility. They’re already nervous. Now they have to think about how to add your question to their answer. It’s even harder for them to be natural, to be themselves.

And secondly, it’s an unnatural thing to do. People don’t repeat the questions they’re asked when they’re answering them. This is really an issue of context that you need to solve it in your edit, not put the burden on the subject.

One solution is to add a title card. For instance, if I just show a clip of Veronica giving advice having to do with calling her interview subjects, it’s not very helpful. But if I lead with a title card saying “Preparing Your Subject for the Interview” now the view has context for what she’s going to talk about. They will be intrigued and want to hear what she has to say.

That solution, a title card, may not work for your project but the point is, you don’t need the question in order to give context. There are other ways, sometimes using other footage that poses the question indirectly.

Here are some more tips from Veronica

Preparing Your Subject

Basically, I ask them the questions they might answer and sometimes you’re surprised by what they say. I may hear something and realize I have to explore that more. That pre-interview helps you mold the story for later.

But sometimes you pre-interview them and they sound terrible. They are not the type of person who is going to be good on camera. They have no charm. They’re very flat. Maybe they don’t really have much to say or what they say sounds very academic. So the pre-interview helps you screen the person and see if they’re going to be good.

Preparing for Interviews

I need to have in my head what the story is going to be about. After I know what the story is going to be about, and this might change, you report more, research more and the story changes. Maybe they tell you something that is like wow and the story changes. Doesn’t matter. You still have to have in your head what the story is about. You have to have a draft of the story before you interview.

You want to find people who will help you tell this story. You need to ask questions so they tell you what you need to know. You write down these questions.

Put Yourself in their Shoes

One thing that is a good practice is if you’re going to interview people, is to put yourself on the other side. Have someone interview you so you know how nerve raking is it to be interviewed. Some people are going to get really nervous. And even if the person is a great pre-interview, when they get on camera, they may freeze. And you can’t use it. It’s happened to me. I definitely can’t use what they’re saying.

Sometimes they try to sound so smart and then they get so confused. What they say makes no sense.

One thing I do because people get very self-conscious about how they look so I tell them they look great. First thing I say. You’re sounding great. I tell them it’s a conversation that we’re having and that if they make any mistakes if they want to start over, they can start over. We can edit these things.

Keep it Simple

Try to make it sound like you’re talking to a 12-year-old. You don’t need to sound super smart. You don’t need to use big words. Relax and let's have a conversation.

Sometimes that works depending on what you’re doing. If that person is giving a testimonial and they need to talk about certain things they have to remember, I print out the bullet points on big paper of what they have to talk about. So they don’t have to memorize it.

Even if they have to say something by memory, I just ask them to just tell me. And it will sound better, their explanation more natural, more likable when they don’t memorize and they just say it.

Sometimes you interview someone and if you don’t want your voice to be heard. You just let the person to talk and should hold onto your laughter, hold onto your comments. You don’t want to add your voice because then you can’t use what the person is saying.

Let them finish and then laugh or comment. But sometimes, if you interview someone and it was so funny and you laugh or say something, well it just may add some personality to the interview.

All of this advice boils down to one thing and that’s trust with your subject.

To get more insight I reached out to Amy Sewell. She’s a writer/filmmaker/nonprofit business manager and well known for many things including the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom.

She mentioned to me that filmmakers are intimidating because they have all the power in how a person is going to look. Trust is the biggest factor she says

“And trust comes from one genuine soul working to reveal another genuine soul on camera and having it work.  I will say that the filmmaker must believe whole-heartedly in his or her mission because to even interview an antagonist, you must somehow have some sympathy or empathy for his or her side of the story. The truth always lies in the middle even when it doesn't (it does to someone).”


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