No matter who is sitting in front of the camera during an interview the one sitting right behind it is the one in the hot seat. I have interviewed people ranging from superstar H.E.R to unknown employees at huge corporations, and the process and focus was the identical. You're talking to them because they have something important to contribute the story you're telling. Your job goes far beyond asking a list of questions you wrote ahead of time. You are strategically guiding an authentic conversation that will become the story in your film.
There are lots of resources for interviewing basics, but here are a few deeper things I’ve learned along the way.
Showing up to an interview with a list of printed questions is not enough preparation to discover a deeper story. You need to know who you’re talking to, why they matter and the bigger story you’re interested in capturing. Of course, you should have questions prepared as a guide, but the minute you disengage from the conversation to check your questions or fumble about, you’re leaving the flow. You want to know your questions well enough that you can simply ask them within your conversation. Think about how one question can inspire the next or how one story feeds into another. This larger flow will put everyone at ease and get to the deeper answers.
Embrace the Unexpected
It’s easy to go into an interview hoping that you’ll get specific soundbites. And maybe you will, but often times the parts you end up using are hidden deep in the ramblings - a beautiful thought train that the whole room was swept up in. As an interviewer, it’s important to stay focused on the bigger picture but it’s equally important to let the words flow. Often times the interviewee delivers the “almost perfect” answer to your question and the urge to have them repeat it is unbearable. But, don’t... because 99% of the time it only messes up their train of thought and the answer feels canned. Instead, see if they can elaborate more and hopefully they repeat themselves in one form or another.
It seems overtly obvious to include listening in what is ultimately a conversation, but somehow it can be easy to forget to do when you have a prepared agenda to get through. It’s important to hear what they’re saying and to naturally dig deeper into the conversation. Think of the questions you have prepared as thought starters that get you in the mode to discover with a series of follow up questions that lead to more interesting stories. Your interview will be much stronger if you give yourself the time and permission to do that.
It may come down to who is in the room with you, if a dog can sit on their lap, how the lights are configured or simply your tone. The bottom line is, making sure the interviewee is at ease and feels comfortable before you start is super important. H.E.R. preferred having her entourage in the room, Pauline Akunyande wanted a translator as reassurance that she was understanding our conversation, Dee Dee Bridgewater needed her dog on her lap and Pete Nordstrom just wanted the interview to fit in :30 min. If it’s possible, take a few minutes before the cameras are rolling to introduce yourself and get to the bottom of what they need. This way, they won’t worry about things unnecessarily and they trust you more. For people to deliver the most compelling content they must feel at ease.