Thoughtful interviews are well planned. Planning means contacting your subjects, explaining your story and why you need their input.
It also requires detailing who your story is for and how and where it will be used. Good preparation also demands you arrange a mutually suitable time and place for the interview. And it means preparing questions that will elicit the most informative and engaging responses. Never just show up on someone's doorstep unannounced, expecting a thoughtful and cooperative subject to be waiting for you.
There's no need to go into exhaustive detail in your initial contact. You want to offer just enough information so your subject will be prepared for the interview, but won't give them the opportunity to rehearse responses. Offer general areas of conversation you'll be exploring, but don't provide a list of specific questions, as that will ruin any chance for spontaneity.
Choose a time and location that will provide minimal distraction and noise. Ideally, you can shoot your subject in his or her "natural habitat"—at work or at home, or in a location that's appropriate for the story itself. Make sure to schedule enough time—and remember to include time for setting up your location for recording optimal audio and video.
You don't want to be rushed. Depending on the nature and complexity of your story, you may need to make multiple visits, at a variety of locations—especially if you're following a process over a period of time. Or things can become more complicated as you unearth new information that requires an on-camera response or rebuttal from other sources. Let the subject know that.
How much time should you request for your interview? That really depends on too many factors for us to generalize. TV news reporters are accustomed to getting in and out fast. They have frequent and rigid deadlines to meet and they know that only a short sound bite—a telling comment or observation extracted from a longer interview—will be used for their minute-long story. they realize there is no point in burdening the editor (most likely themselves) with wadding through a half-hour conversation for the "money" quote. Instead, they fire off three quick questions, and they"re good to go.
Videojournalist face fewer such constraints. But at the same time, busy audiences do expect and appreciate economy. Even though stories can be told more expansively, nobody has the patience to sit through rambling monologues, expecially when so many other online distractions beckon.
DEVELOPING YOUR QUESTIONS
The two most important things you will be bringing to your interview (besides your equipment) are your list of questions and your sense of curiosity.
You'd be amazed at how many would-be interviewers leave those things at home, and instead think that the most important thing to bring is themselves—their own sparkling wit and personality. They somehow forget that the interview is about the other person.
Your curiosity is probably what got you impassioned about storytelling in the first place. Good interviewers are curious about the world and are sincerely interested in other people and what makes them tick.
As you're preparing your questions, invite interested friends and associates to contribute as well. Nowadays, the Web makes it especially easy for journalists to solicit questions for upcoming interviews, especially via social media such as Facebook or Twitter. You can invite input from total strangers who may share an interest (and even some expertise) either in your topic or in your interviewee.
Now that you've learned all you can in advance about your subject, and have determined what fresh information, ideas, and emotions you'd like to see shared with you and your audience, you need to structure a conversation designed to elicit all that. Even though some interviewers smugly pride themselves on their provocative or challenging questions, in truth, a question is only as good as the response it evokes. This fact is doubly true in videojournalism, where you're unlikely to include the questions when editing. Remember: you're a journalist, not a talk-show host.
In addition to standard biographical background questions, nearly all your inquiries will focus on:
• What your subject has done, is doing, or plans to do
• What your subject thinks about ___________
• How your subject feels about ___________
• What your subject knows about ___________
• What your subject has experienced regarding __________
What people remember most about a story is usually not factual. Rather, a viewer recalls the emotions the story stirs up and the senses it awakens. That's why asking how a subject feels, in every "sense," is a completely useful and valid interview tactic.
"Describe what it was like to" is a good phrase for teasing out how a subject feels about something without asking "How did it feel to _________?"
Allow flexibility, so that the conversation can follow a natural course and go down unexpected but fruitful paths.
Keeping in mind that your story will follow a narrative arc—rising action, conflict, and resolution—you'll want to ask questions that lend themselves to that dramatic structure:
- How did you get started?
- What is your goal?
- What drives you? Why are you passionate about this?
- What are the obstacles or hurdles preventing you from reaching that goal?
- How have you overcome them? How do you plan to overcome them?
- What does the future look like?
TIP: Remember to listen to your subject's answer, not prepare for the next question. Your next questions could expand on what the interviewee just said before you change topics and take the interview in a new direction.
Types of Questions
There are two general types of interview questions—closed-ended and open-ended. What's the difference? A closed-ended question can be answered with a "yes" or a "no" or a one-syllable word, whereas an open-ended question cannot. The best questions are open-ended because they lead to expansive responses. Look at the difference:
- Closed-ended: Do your teenage kids respect you?
- Open-ended: Tell us about your relationship with your teenage kids.
- Closed ended: Are you going to vote in favor of this legislation?
- Open-ended: What do you think about this proposed legislation?
- Closed-ended: What's your favorite hobby or activity?
- Open-ended: What do you do on weekends?
Questions to Close
Here are some other tried-and-true "closers" that ou can adapt for your purposes:
- What is the significance of what you've told us today?
- What have you learned from this experience?
- What would you like our audience to do about this?
- Is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you now know?
- What are your plans for the future?
- What obstacles and challenges lie ahead?
It's also a good idea to ask whether you can call on the subject again if you need further information.
Finally, always ask your subject, "Is there anything else you would like to add?"
Structure Your Questions in Themes
So that you're not hop-scotching all over the place, structure your questions to be clustered around themes. (Editing will also be easier.) Know well ahead where you plan to begin, and where you hope to end.
The first question should be nonconfrontational—just to get everyone relaxed and rolling. Save tougher questions for later in the interview, especially if they're confrontational in nature. The final question might be an open-ended summation, along the lines of, "So what's the most important thing we should remember about __________?"
Organize the Questions with Bullet Points and Key Words
Instead of writing specific detailed questions, consider writing a list with bullet points and memory-jogging keywords. That way, you won't fall into the trap of reading the questions verbatim, like a spelling bee moderator, or worse, a police interrogator. You'll also be more inclined to pursue the interview as a conversation, which is conducive to the subject's sharing stories.
Conversation is preferable to Q&A, which more often produces clipped, lifeless responses. To make sure you aren't leaving out important themes you intend to explore, or information you need to get on-camera, do, of course, consult your list.