By Alex Poulos, LaunchPad Media
Interviews can help you create great video content if the “talking heads” sound genuine and interesting. But how can you elicit from people who aren’t professional actors the kind of sound-bites an editor needs to tell a captivating story? Well, there is an art to video interviewing…
A how-not-to interview story. My client was a high-tech company, but its CEO was high-maintenance. When he showed up for the video interview he acted cocky, but was obviously anxious. My mistake was letting his marketing handlers prepare him in advance. I’d given them a list of questions I expected to ask him, and apparently they tried to stuff his head with answers. So he was as nervous as a student who failed to study for a crucial exam. It got worse. My video crew had some trouble perfecting the lighting and audio, so the CEO spent that additional time scribbling notes for the anticipated interrogation. The more he tried to think of astute points to make, the more he stressed. I was stressed, too. For this video, I didn’t want to hear contrived talking points; I wanted sincere, spontaneous sound-bites. I reached over, took his script, and tore it into pieces…while he watched, aghast. I said, “We’re just going to talk.”
Before videotaping begins, the interviewer must put an interviewee in the right frame of mind.
An interviewer offers reassuring tips like those you see below, in quotes. And in parentheses, you’ll see what the interviewer actually thinks while giving those instructions.
“Relax.” (But don’t be too laid-back. Hopefully the lighting and setting will make you a little nervous so you’re energized and not monotone.)
“Just talk directly to me.” (Forget the camera. There’s a reason actors don’t deliver lines while looking into the camera; they would seem phony.)
“Feel free to ramble.” (Don’t hold back from making a point, because you might forget to say it later.)
“If you stumble, just start over.” (We are going to edit out 98% of what you say anyway.)
“It’s just a conversation.” (Sound like a human being. Don’t regurgitate talking points.)
“Try to be succinct.” (But don’t worry about it; we’ll edit out tangential comments and cover those edits with B-roll anyway.)
“State the subject in the beginning of your answer, because my questions won’t be in the video.” (We don’t want to have to put text on screen to explain what you’re talking about.)
“Feel free to repeat a point.” (Chances are good you didn’t say it eloquently the first time.)
“Speak with passion if you feel strongly.” (Let it rip. If you sound crazy, we won’t use it. Besides, we’ll be putting music under everything, so it’ll sound like you are striking the right emotional note anyway.)
“You look great.” (Please don’t perspire. We don’t want to stop taping to reapply your makeup.)
A good video interviewer is a camera-conscious conversationalist, and an amateur psychologist.
To elicit smart comments from someone, you should try to understand things from their perspective. And the first thing to realize is that they probably are uncomfortable being interviewed. That’s true of even very articulate people (maybe more so, because they are word-conscious and know the risks of saying something that could be misunderstood or misconstrued).
Ernest Hemingway, an exemplar of straightforward writing, once confessed: “After the New Yorker piece I decided that I would never give another interview to anyone on any subject and that I would keep away from all places where I would be likely to be interviewed. If you say nothing it is difficult for someone to get it wrong.”
You can’t help but feel pressure when you’re under hot lights and know that only bits of what you say will be shown…and maybe, in our viral video age, shown to innumerable people. And even if you have done well in past interviews, that doesn’t necessarily reduce the tension. Indeed, the more that interviewees understand what a video crew wants out of their performance, the more pressure they feel.
Jeff Ansell, a media adviser, explained: “People do not trust the slick and polished. Instead, the objectives of media training should be to learn how to directly address difficult questions, how to avoid falling into media traps, and most importantly, how to accomplish the two previous tasks with honesty and integrity.” That’s easier said than done. It’s hard to sound sincere when you’re also trying to be quotable.
Heather Choate Davis, a creative writer, touched on the challenge of being sincere when she recounted what’s involved when you take a child to a college interview: “We fluff them and fold them and nudge them and enhance them and bind them and break them and embellish them beyond measure; then, as we drive them up to the college interviews that they’ve heard since birth are the gateway to the lives they were destined to lead based on nothing more than our own need for it to be true, we tell them, with a smile so tight it would crack nuts, ‘Just be yourself’.”
To conduct a great video interview, the challenge is: how do you bring out that other person’s best self?
To elicit great sound-bites, the interviewer needs to coax the interviewee.
1. BE FUNNY. To help interviewees relax, try to bond with them. Small talk is good; entertaining banter is even better. If you make them laugh, it stimulates them mentally and emotionally, so they’re ready for an enjoyable dialogue. Even if you’re not a natural comedian, any attempt at levity is usually welcomed by them because they want to get over their pre-interview anxiety.
2. MAINTAIN EYE CONTACT. When the interviewee is talking, it’s important to keep your eyes locked on theirs the entire time. If you glance down at your notes to be ready for the next question, you risk signaling that you’re not really interested in what they’re saying, so they might assume their answer is not interesting and abruptly stop. You can lose a quotable sound-bite that way.
3. LOOK FASCINATED. Eye contact is not enough. If you like what they’re saying, your facial expression should let them know that you are really intrigued by their thinking and empathetic to their feelings. Part of the role you play in an interview is to coach and coax — by being supportive and encouraging.
4. DON’T ASK QUESTIONS. If you want sound-bites that stand alone – so you don’t have to include the question in the video – do not put a question in the form of a question. You don’t want them to sound like they are replying to unheard questions. Instead, be declarative; say something like, “Talk about blank.”
5. GIVE THEM TIME TO THINK. When you are posing a question but can tell that the interviewee doesn’t know what to say in response, keep talking about the subject. Talk about it from different angles, or use different words, in hope that the interviewee will think of something to say. If that doesn’t work, help the interviewee save face by saying something like, “That’s not an easy question, so let’s return to it later.”
6. TRY STANDING. If the person you’re interviewing tends to be long-winded – speaking in paragraphs, rather than sound-bites – you might try having the conversation while standing instead of sitting. People usually speak more quickly and concisely when standing.
7. DON’T GET TOO CLOSE. If interviewees are stiff or speak too softly, stand or sit farther away and tell them to speak louder so you can hear them. That way, they will project more and seem more animated.
8. DON’T OVER-CORRECT. Your video editor might complain later if there are a lot of verbal tics that need to be edited out – “uh,” “like,” “you know,” and “So” at the beginning of every sentence. But if you try to coach the interviewee to stop saying such things, it usually just makes them more word-conscious in a bad way. They’ll slow down, stop at every “uh,” and lose confidence in the process.
9. DISCOURAGE JARGON. Some interviewees are so programmed to use corporate buzzwords, they sound impersonal. Sometimes you need to be blunt and point out that such jargon won’t be understood by others. Urge them to view you as someone who is fairly ignorant and needs to hear the points in simple, plain English. Sometimes they then just rearrange the buzz-phrases, so you have to interrupt. “Excuse me, but, again, you’re sounding too corporate…” Being a little rude like that may be hard for you, but the truth is: interviewees usually appreciate the tough love. After all, they too want this video to be good.
10. ASK A QUESTION AFTER THE “LAST QUESTION”. Make sure your videographer knows in advance to keep the camera rolling even after you sound like you have finished grilling the guest. At the end, you should always ask, “Any additional thoughts? Or anything you might like to say in a different way?” You then want to compliment your guest, of course – assure them that you’re pleased with what you got. But, now that the interviewee has relaxed and feels good, it’s time to casually pop a final question – maybe another stab at a topic you didn’t feel was answered well, or something that’ll elicit a more passionate sound-bite… “Tell me, do you really think…?” or “Honestly, what do you like best about your work?” Sometimes interviewees are too tired to say more, but often they open up in ways that sound more personable or heartfelt. As they speak, you often think: Thank goodness I asked that last question!
To appreciate the power of storytelling in corporate videos, check out my commentary on the subject. And if you have any questions or comments, please email me at [email protected].