Interview skills are a fundamental tool in a storyteller and filmmaker’s kit. No matter how hard you work to identify excellent examples of your organisation’s impact, your stories will remain flat and lifeless without powerful and authentic testimony from the people involved. Learning how to conduct great interviews will help your audience to make strong emotional connections with your work.
A big part of the interview process takes place well in advance of the interview. You need to do your research on the person you are interviewing and the topic of your interview, not only so you can ask the right questions, but also to ensure you approach sensitive subjects in the right way.
1. Preparing your interviewee
On the day, the rapport you build with the person you are interviewing is crucial. Before you settle down for the interview it is always a good idea to re-cap on why you are doing the interview, what you are going to use it for and what you are hoping to achieve. Remember the prospect of being interviewed will probably feel strange for your interviewee and there is even the chance they are feeling nervous. If this is the first time you have met, a bit of small talk will help you connect.
Have a preliminary chat and explain how their story will be used. Tell them roughly how long the interview will take and give them some examples of the kinds of questions you will ask. Give them the opportunity to ask about anything that may be worrying them.
Make sure to explain that you will need to speak to them about their whole experience, particularly the circumstances behind their current situation and the impact it has had on them. Check they are happy to disclose this detail publicly.
Think about a location for the interview. Choose somewhere quiet where the person will feel comfortable, such as their home or somewhere else they are familiar with. Bringing them into a new environment could put them on edge and they may not open up in somewhere as public as a café or open plan office.
Consider any support the interviewee or you might need while the interview takes place. The person might feel more comfortable if a friend or a member of their family is present. If it is someone for whom English is their second language you may need a translator. Be mindful however that –as a general rule – the fewer people present, the better the interview will be.
2. Planning your questions
Ask the right questions and you should get the answer you are looking for. Ask brilliant questions and you are in with a chance of getting the sort of spine-tingling responses that storytellers dream of. What you are looking for is not just the factual information about what happened but the illustrative detail. Your ability to capture this detail is all in the questions you ask.
Don’t ask random questions or have a meandering conversation. Outline what you want to hear your interviewee say and then come up with the questions that will draw that information out of them.
Keep a relaxing atmosphere
Write down as many questions as you can think of even though you might not ask all of them. You will usually start off with a few housekeeping details. These include asking the person’s full name and age and a bit about family, pets and hobbies. These might not be relevant to the story but they are nonthreatening and help to create a relaxed atmosphere at the start of your interview.
Logically following questions
From the warm up, plan your questions so they lead your interviewee through the outline of your final story. One question should logically follow another and any really big, emotional questions should be led up to with two or three preliminaries. Get into the habit of using open-ended questions that require descriptive responses rather than ‘yes or no’ answers.
Make sure you include some questions that provide background and colour about people’s relationships and personalities. Questions such as, “Describe how you used to spend your free time?” or “What were your ambitions when you were young?” prompt responses that will help viewers understand that your subject is just like them – whatever their current situation.
At the end of your interview it can be helpful to ask if there is anything your interviewee would like to add. This single question often generates some of the most golden quotes, bringing up everything from a whole new angle for your story to a heartfelt proclamation the person has been waiting to get off their chest. It’s a great question to add to the bottom of your list.
Thanks to Sarah for this article. Sarah is a member of the extended Mile 91 team and a Charity Writer, Producer and Storyteller.
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For an insight into the different types of interviewee you may come across and ways to get the best out of them, Mike Smith- Documentary filmmaker, has written an interesting blog for Charity Comms.