In Part One we looked at the different kinds of interview scenarios, and the typical state of a client before the interview.
In this part I’ll explain my way of conducting interviews for corporate videos.
How to conduct an interview
If I have to sum it up in one sentence this would be it: You must dance with your client.
You must invest your concentration, interest, empathy and body language into the effort. You must be present. These skills are what you must possess to just begin this dance. It’s the price of entry.
Note: I discovered I had these skills naturally, and I don’t have to put any effort into it. This is why I progressed into conducting interviews this way. This is not ‘the’ way, just ‘a’ way. Look inside and see what skills you have, and what you’re willing to learn. Go from there.
Here’s how I dance:
What I do before the interviewee shows up
Make sure your gear, camera, audio and lighting is up and ready. There is no excuse for not being ready, even if a subject shows up when not expected (like a CEO who just pops in for a quick interview). Your professionalism begins before you start interviewing, and continues through every breathing day.
Decide where to place the interviewee, if you have that choice. When you’re interviewing someone in their office, it’s not easy to get them to leave their chair. Try to find them the most comfortable chair or location in the room. I take the second-most comfortable chair or location, slightly off camera.
Obviously, I look for lighting, composition and audio problems. There are always constraints.
I quickly go through what needs to be covered. If I’ve done my homework, I’d have written down the answers I’m waiting to hear. I don’t write down the questions. If I’m interested and curious, the questions will come automatically. If this is a sticking point, always isolate the topic being discussed, and ask (not loudly!):
If you’re discussing third-order differential equations (TODE), you ask yourself ‘How TODE?’, ‘What TODE?’, ‘Why TODE?’, etc. The natural flow will present itself to you.
I don’t like questions on paper because it’s tempting to just read them. Anybody can do that, so where’s the skill you’re charging for?
As a corporate video professional it is your duty to study the client’s work, workflow or operations, etc., and develop an interest in them. Be curious, otherwise your disinterest will show in your videos, and will manifest itself inside the client when it’s payment time!
I will also make sure I’m in the best mood possible, with a good energy level. If I’m not ready, I drink a Red Bull, coffee or whatever it takes. If I’m not in the mood to talk, I talk with my DP or audio guy or myself even. I warm up, ready to roll.
What I do when we first meet
Eye contact, smile and a firm handshake. There is no corporate business scenario on earth where these three are shunned. Before they ask, indicate where they are to sit, and tell them where you’ll be and where they have to look.
You are the captain of this dance. Take control.
Thank them for coming, and disarm them by building rapport. During this stage, I’m also looking to see if they use animated hand movements, where I might need to re-frame my shot. I’m not worried about shifting around or nervousness. That will go away soon.
What I do to build rapport
Ask them questions that have nothing to do with the interview. Talk about sport, fashion, kids, whatever – ask them open ended questions. What I’m trying to do is get them to talk so their vocal chords get a warm up. I don’t interrupt and I listen.
I’m showing interest in their lives and work. I try to mimic their body language initially. At the end of this stage I will lean back and appear relaxed. It is magical to see them do the same.
It might seem strange, but it doesn’t take me more than a few minutes to get them to relax. They are so invested in the conversation that they forget about the camera and the interview.
I also joke, which is a powerful way of conveying the fact that you get them. I am interested. That’s why it works. They feel it. Remember, this is a conversation, not an interview. You know you’re succeeding when they start asking questions about you (and not the subject of the interview).
I explained the ‘states of the client’ in Part One. Let’s look at them again.
You have created a bubble, just like you might do in a club or a film set. The interviewees are no longer conscious or nervous. They aren’t scared because they know you care. I never say it with words, but my actions imply this quite clearly.
Whatever pretensions they have had about you is forgotten (it’ll come back after the interview!) for a brief period because they are curious about you. If you are not an interesting person, fake it. If they are the paranoid type, there’s nothing you can do.
You know it’s time to begin the interview when your subject is having a natural conversation with you, isn’t shifting around anymore, and has a relaxed posture and tone.
At this point the interview is a natural progression of your conversation. This is not easy, because each project is different, and deals with different subject matter. One has to be a master with words, and extremely well-read, to pull it off. I’m not there yet.
If you see them freezing up (they are suddenly brought back to the reality of the interview), then talk some more, and disarm them by telling them no one will see the bad stuff. This time I talk about the interview. Since I’ve built a connection earlier, they believe me. Soon, they are relaxed again. It doesn’t take more than a minute really.
I’ve noticed this only works when I’ve established a friendly mutual interest. You can’t force things. If necessary, spend some more time talking. Let your crew (if you have one) behave as if they are still ‘working on the lighting’. There’s no hurry.
Does this seem like too much work for an interview? Not really, not to me. I want a relaxed subject who will give me great sound bites. I don’t want a boring, nervous, talking head.
Sometimes this process takes a while, sometimes it never happens! CEOs and other managers just sit down and start. They are used to marketing their company every single day. They are always networking or selling something, and they are almost always the best articulators. You still get some ‘bad apples’, but they are bad for a whole different reason (office politics, their cousin didn’t get this corporate video gig, they had to wait their turn, or they are bad people generally).
Steering the conversation
At some point all your interviewees will suddenly realize they are in an interview, but will also realize they are no longer nervous. You can literally see the confidence rise when this happens. Go for gold.
How do you know you’ve asked the right question? When you get the right answer, with the right emotions!
I never tell them anything negative about themselves or their words. I never show any displeasure, impatience or anxiousness, even if we’re running behind schedule.
By the way, our phones are switched off, and we never look at the clock. I don’t wear a watch anyway.
Sometimes I get the right answer, but I’m not happy with the delivery. I ask other questions and try to work them up (this comes from experience in directing fiction) to get a better response. This process is subtle, and I’ve been burned many times trying this. Don’t do it unless you can handle the failure. How do you know when you’ve failed? Easy, either the emotion is directed at you or it overwhelms the subject.
At this point you are always moving on to the next sound bite. Get them all while your subject is ‘hot’. When I’m in the zone I don’t waste time with unnecessary stuff or chit chat. You never know when you’ll be interrupted or asked to stop or whatever. There are a million distractions in the workplace. This isn’t an exact science.
Putting words into their mouth
Sometimes even after I’ve covered enough ground the answers are still not ‘framed’ the way I want them. This is when I put words into their mouths, similar to how lawyers lead a witness in court.
This is as close to mimicking as I get. If I fail here, I tell the person who hired me (which could be the person who’s screwed up) that we have a problem. There’s no shame here. You’ve tried your best. Some subjects just can’t articulate very well. It’s your client’s responsibility to find (or fund) another subject, if possible. If not, you do the best you can with what you have.
Wrapping up and going through the checklist
Before I let the subject go, I will recap all the major points aloud. I will involve them in this process because there’s always a chance we’ve both forgotten something. Since I’ve already developed a friendly rapport they will share in my work and want to help me.
If you behave as if all this is ‘no big deal’, they will share the feeling with you. Once I have what I want in the ‘can’ I wrap. I always compliment them on their answers and in helping me, etc. When they leave, I want them to feel like they’ve aced a job interview.
If they aren’t used to this kind of attention (how many of us are?) they’ll go home and tell their friends or family about it. They’ll wait in anticipation for the few seconds they’ll be on screen. I never disrespect that trust.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We are not out making friends, though we might. The subjects know that, too. However, I’ve been called many times outside of work by people I’ve befriended during interviews. Sometimes they want to add me on Facebook during the interview. It’s tough when you can’t invest in their friendship, but I’m always friendly. Who knows? You might be hired again by the same company for a future project.
This method of working is a responsibility. Like I said, it’s a dance that you can’t reject and must continue as long as you’re in business. You must always be available.
I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to conduct interviews. Remember, my style is just a ‘style’, I have seen many others – and they all seem as alien to me as mine seems to them!
Does my style have weaknesses? Sure it does. Remember the four kinds of subject matter? My method demands that I be interested in my subject, even when I’m not. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. It takes a lot of will power to bring myself ‘up to speed’ when it’s the end of a long day or week. Ten percent of the time, my skills desert me. Nowadays I try to avoid this ‘phase’, but this a dance to someone else’s tune. You don’t get paid to dance to your own tune.
If you like to read more about corporate videos and interviewing, two books I highly recommend are Corporate Video Production: Beyond the Board Room (And OUT of the Bored Room) and The Art of the Interview: Lessons from a Master of the Craft.
How do you conduct interviews? I would love to learn your tips and techniques, and this might help me in return. There’s no such thing as perfection.