How to Prepare…for a Successful On-Camera Interview
By: Chris Gamel
This article first appears in the 2013 Spring Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA).
The key to successful on-camera interviews is preparation. No matter how social or creative you are, failing to prepare will likely lead to disaster. Skilled interviewers may make it look like they are just sitting down and having a casual conversation, but the reality is that a great deal of preparation takes place before the interview begins. In this article I will discuss how to prepare for a successful interview.
IDENTIFY YOUR PURPOSE
The first step in preparing for an interview is to identify why you are filming the interview. A purpose helps to shape and guide your approach to the interview and the questions you ask. It also helps to ensure that you walk away with footage that you can actually use.
All interviews should help achieve a specific purpose. That purpose might be to learn about an interesting scientist, to have a politician share his/her knowledge, or to have an economist provide financial insight into a current event or issue. The purpose might be how the interviewee’s profession fits into a larger or more complex project.
SELECTING YOUR INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Once the “why” has been answered, it is time to look at the “who.” Who will you interview? How will that person help you accomplish your purpose? When considering possible interview subjects, remember, not all subjects are created equal. Consider the following before finalizing your interview subjects:
- Why do you want to interview this subject?
- Does the subject have some special talent or knowledge that can be shared with your audience?
- Does the subject have an interesting story to tell? If so, can he or she articulate that story in a way that will be interesting to your audience?
- Does the subject’s appearance and personality contribute to or distract from your purpose?
- Is the subject willing to be interviewed, and is he or she available?
An academic biologist might be an outstanding interview subject when the purpose of the interview is to provide background scientific information and an expert opinion. If the purpose of the interview is to provide firsthand information from the field, however, a field biologist might be a better choice. A subject’s personality, appearance, knowledge, and availability might also influence their acceptability. The key is to determine what each potential interview subject has to offer and how he or she might fit into your video project.
A successful interview requires a significant amount of time and energy to complete. Before devoting that time and energy, make sure you are spending it on the right person.
DEVELOPING INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Once you have identified your subjects and they have agreed to the interviews, developing interview questions is next. Do not make the mistake of trying to improvise your interview questions during the interview. It is unprofessional, inefficient, and shows a lack of respect for the subject’s time. Always arrive prepared.
Like interview subjects, not all interview questions are created equal. Ideally, interview questions should share the following characteristics:
- They should contribute to accomplishing the purpose of the interview.
- They should pull out details and/or perspectives that are unique to the individual being interviewed.
- They should be open-ended, encouraging the subject to expand on the topic with minimal guidance.
The first step in preparing appropriate interview questions is research. The more you know about your interview subject and the topic being discussed, the more meaningful questions you can ask.
Imagine that you have the opportunity to interview Dr. Jane Goodall, one of the world’s leading primatologists and conservation advocates. Which of the following questions do you think would lead to a more interesting interview?
- What is up with those chimps?
- How did discovering that chimpanzees use tools change your perception of the species?
Both questions are open-ended, but the second demonstrates an understanding of Dr. Goodall’s work and leads her to discuss her unique perspective as the person who discovered that non-human species are tool users.
An interview is a form of storytelling: the questions you ask should focus on the interview topic and help draw the story out. Questions should support the traditional storytelling arc: an introduction of the issue, the conflict, and the resolution. Don’t misunderstand what I mean by conflict. In this context, conflict does not mean that the interview should be overly aggressive or hostile, though there are times where that approach is appropriate. Here, conflict refers to the drama that is a key element of every story. It is the challenge or obstacle that must be overcome before the story is complete.
While staying on topic is important, it is equally important to remain flexible during the interview. Prepared questions get you started, but you should not ignore impromptu questions that encourage elaboration of unexpected information that comes up during the interview. Interviews do not follow a script and not all interview subjects are natural elaborators. Be prepared to ask appropriate follow-up questions if the interview goes in an unexpected, but valuable direction.
Group questions by topic. It helps the interview stay focused and makes sure each topic is covered fully before moving on to the next. Also, close the interview with a wrap-up question that pulls everything together. Examples of wrap-up questions include:
- How did these experiences shape who you are today?
- If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
- What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting off in this field today?
Finally, always end by asking your subjects if there is anything else they would like to add.
When conducting an interview, remember, the subject is the star and should be doing most of the talking. Too often, the interviewer makes the mistake of pushing his/her own thoughts and views. Your job is to guide the interview, not take it over.
Proper preparation is a key step in conducting a successful interview. In a future article we will focus on the different types of interviews and the most effective ways of filming each type.