How To Interview A Subject
Master the art of the interview with these simple techniques.
Cover image via "Frost/Nixon" - Imagine Entertainment
What do David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Joe Rogan all have in common? Yes indeed, they are all rich and famous, and that’s mainly due to the fact that all three are experts at talking to people. While each person has their own unique style, they are all masters of the art of the interview. And it really is an art.
As with anything, it takes practice to get good at interviewing people. If you’ve ever had to talk to someone on camera, then you’re probably already well aware of the various obstacles you can face - such as one word answers or awkward eye contact. There are, however, a number of tips and tricks to help avoid these pitfalls. Let’s have a look at a few of these techniques in greater detail.
Make Your Subject Comfortable
One of the first steps in the interview process is to make your subject feel as comfortable as possible. Cameras, lights and microphones can be intimidating, especially if your interviewee has never been in the hot seat before. Most people are worried that they might say something stupid, or end up looking foolish on camera. Indeed, it can be nerve-wracking to think that something you say can end up on the Internet forever.
Make some friendly small talk prior to the interview. There is usually plenty of time for this, as camera and audio equipment needs to be setup. This will help smoothly transition into the interview. On the contrary, counting in or yelling rolling isn’t always the best technique.
A few simple directions prior to recording will also help to put a person at ease. Tell them how the process works, where to look when answering a question, etc. I often tell subjects to just ignore the camera, and to treat it as a simple conversation between us. If the situation calls for it, share some of the questions with them. And if it’s not a live interview, remind them that parts can be edited out, and not to worry.
The key tactic is to show confidence. If your subject gets the vibe that you know what you’re doing, they’ll naturally be more comfortable.
Properly Pose a Question
When conducting an interview where you won’t be on camera with your subject, it’s important to know how to pose a question. In these situations, the soundbites in your edited piece need to be able to stand alone as statements with proper context. Otherwise you can end up with one word answers, and a very tough post production process.
This can be easily avoided by using open-ended questions. These are simply questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Be sure to listen carefully to your subject to make sure their responses are good enough to stand alone as statements. I’ve always explained this situation to interviewees, and asked them to repeat the question in their answers.
Why did you want to go into baking?
I got into baking because…
If you still don’t get the answer you want, simply reword the same question and ask it again. Or you can always follow up with - “tell me how that made you feel.”
Look at Me!
I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, and the most common question I hear just prior to starting an interview is “where do I look? Am I looking at you, or the camera?”
Eye contact is an important part of nonverbal communication. After my first few interviews, I quickly learned to give specific directions regarding where to look. That’s because many interviewees would awkwardly look into the camera throughout the process. And believe me, this is something that you can’t edit around.
Again, some simple directions prior to the interview will put your subject at ease. “Don’t mind the camera, just look at me. In fact, let’s act like that camera doesn’t exist.”
The Pregnant Pause
While you generally want your subject comfortable during the start of the interview, you can use discomfort to get a quiet subject to start speaking. Just give the pregnant pause a try.
This is a fun technique to try out, and it usually works quite well. It’s essentially using the power of awkward silence to urge your subject to keep talking. Silence is called awkward for a reason, as it is indeed often awkward. No one likes silence, especially when they’re sitting in front of a camera.
Most subjects will expect the interviewer to start speaking soon after they stop talking. If you feel like your interviewee has more to say on a topic, however, just sit quietly while maintaining eye contact. The eye contact is key to upping the awkwardness. Your subject will be babbling in no time.
Trust me, it works.
The Art of Listening
So according to Dale Carnegie, the quickest way to win friends and influence people is through listening. Nothing makes a person happier than when you actively listen and show interest in what they are saying. Just go try it out on the next lonely old person you run into.
Proper listening includes the right amount of eye contact, head shaking, and interesting follow up questions. Again, this is a great way to put your subject at ease in front of the camera. Good listening skills is one of the key reasons why Joe Rogan has become such a popular podcaster. It’s easy to see that he’s genuinely interested in his guests and what they have to say. This makes for an exciting interview, both for the interviewee and the viewer.
Again, it takes practice to employ the methods above. One of the best ways to become a better interviewer is to edit your own footage from the interview. During the edit you’ll quickly discover what works and what doesn’t work, and you’ll clearly see any mistakes you made during the interview.
Transcribing, logging and editing videos is an art in itself, and it’s also an incredible amount of work. That’s why you should definitely give Simon Says a try. It’s designed to streamline this process, allowing you to compile and edit footage easily. Quickly create rough cuts and align everyone on the story with AI transcription, text-based video editing, and real-time collaboration. Not sure about Artificial Intelligence tech? Just give it a try here.
So what do you think of the strategies above? Have you ever used them on a shoot? Or maybe you’re using different techniques not mentioned here? Let us know!