Errol Morris probably said it best:
“My advice to all interviewers is: Shut up and listen. It’s harder than it sounds.”
Good interviewers are great conversationalists. They understand that sometimes the straightest road to great interview grabs is a curvy, crazy-as-fuck garden path that requires patience and genuine empathy to navigate.
So great interviewing is a craft, but good interviews are about process and preparation, two aspects very familiar to any video shoot. You can become good at interviewing, and great at directing others to interview, just by tweaking your approach.
Over the years we’ve probably sat in, performed or orchestrated 100s of character interviews. From savy media trained CEOs, untrained and totally authentic cowboys, to six-year-old school kids. 90% of the work for these interviews is done before turning up on set.
The trick to a better interview is doing it three times; once to gauge fit, once to explore and define the story, and once to bring that story to camera.
We’ve found this is a surprisingly simple but effective strategy for coming out of an interview with everything you need to tell the story at hand. And we've used it across most of our interview heavy projects such as People of Post, Unpack Your Potential, and our recent project on Palliative Care.
Our process looks something like this:
The first interview is usually done by a producer. It’s an informal chat, hunting for some up front element that might suggest a character is a possible fit for the kind of story we’re looking to tell. We stress to characters that all we’re doing is understanding the topic, and generally we think it’s better to promise less to potential characters in the early sourcing process. This way the team can back out of any story without offending, and create better conditions to naturally align characters with the brief.
The second, ‘pre-interview’ interview, is usually done by the director or creative alongside the producer. The aim of this interview is to understand the deeper story beyond the initial hints collected in the first pass. It’s a longer, more purposeful interview which we’ll try to do in person. This is the place for the creative or director to build trust with the character so that they have familiarity before the shoot day. We often say ‘pre-interviews are cheap’ because sometimes they don’t work out, and luckily you don’t have an entire production crew waiting on the outcome. They are rough and exploratory, and they often reveal subtle tangents or details to even the most ‘obvious’ story that are crucial to know early in planning.
The third 'on camera' interview is about leading the conversation back to this story outline in a way that feels natural to the character, and looks and sounds natural on screen. It might at times appear like the first 20-odd minutes of an interview with us is unfocused and unrelated to the topic at hand, but it’s 20 crucial minutes spent building a conversation that gets us to our planned outcome.
The important thing to remember is that the pre-interview process provides all the information necessary to craft a focused interview plan for the final on camera session.
In story driven content, a good interview isn’t achieved through an agreed set of questions, it’s via a sound conversation strategy. We use the pre-interview to craft a story outline which often features specific quotes captured from the character during this process.
For all intents and purposes, this is the closest many doco-like projects will come to a storyboard. It is the story, in the characters words, from our perspective.
A good creative knows that their interview prep is done when they no longer need a set of questions in front of them. It's about knowing the corners of the story and the pathways to get to to each.
But every good interviewer also needs a great producer, who can ground this process in the reality of 8 hour days and finite budgets.