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The Art of the Interview

One of the most important skills an interviewer needs is patience. Often when I am interviewing someone, it can take time for them to formulate their thoughts out loud, especially if the question is thought-provoking or emotional for them.

Once a speaker has answered a question, I often wait for a beat or more. Part of this was learned as a matter of practice as a video producer. You never want to “step on someone’s line” or hear your voice on camera right as they finish speaking. It’s a kindness to an editor to give them clean margins to cut in and out of an interview without having to navigate around the producer’s voice.

But what is a technical requirement for video interviews can also be a useful tool. That moment of silence is enough space for a speaker to elaborate on further details or follow a tangential thought that brings up new areas to explore. Some of the most insightful moments in the stories I’ve worked on come from these excursions in unfolding thought.

Sometimes if an answer is too “pat” or rehearsed, I will ask follow up questions to unpack the statement. This is usually easier to do if a topic area is completely new for me. Beginner questions are easy to formulate. If I am more knowledgeable, it can be challenging to see the underlying assumptions about the topic that the speaker and I might share. The best method to get around this problem is to ask questions as if I was someone else, someone who knew nothing about the topic. In my mind, I usually pretend that my grandmother is watching the interview. Would she understand this? If not, I’ll ask more questions.

One of the tricks I learned from an early mentor, Robin Smith of Video Action Fund, was to go beyond the who, what, where, and why. She liked her producers to focus on the emotional content of the story. After a speaker has given you all the facts and details of a situation, ask them how they felt about it. How did they feel before? How did they feel during? How did they feel after? I’ve been surprised by how much people are willing to reveal about their feelings, even on camera.

Now a high level of emotion may not suit all narrative voices. Nor is it appropriate to all stories. But as an audience member, the impact of even one or two brief statements that reveal how the speaker is feeling can be huge. I immediately feel closer to the story.

And stories can take unexpected turns in the writing and editing phases. You may end up with a very different story than you set out to tell. So the interview phase should be as open and freewheeling as possible. Repeat questions or rephrase questions as much as you need to. Ask all the relevant who, what, where, why and when question – and keep asking them until you have one or more versions of the answers. Ask the how questions: How did you do that? How did that happen? How will it end? And ask the emotional questions: How were you feeling about that? How did you feel when you heard that? How do you feel about the future?

And most importantly, give your speaker room to run away on tangents or digressions. The more insight you have into their character and their story, the better. It is the raw material you need to craft a tale your audience finds entertaining and compelling.

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