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Art of the Interview

Tips for guiding unscripted stories

“My advice to all interviewers is: Shut up and listen. It’s harder than it sounds.” — Errol Morris.

As audience hunger for narrative continues to build, marketers are faced with great opportunity and risk; today there are more channels and avenues to reach audiences than ever before, with a renewed interest in short format unscripted content. In such a world, increasingly the way a brand speaks, acts, and is perceived by its audience, depends on the characters it chooses to speak for them.

Such characters are not always ‘on board’ with campaign objectives. They are not media trained. They possess schedules and priorities independent of ours, the filmmakers, and yet, because of their capacity for authenticity and emotional context, these same characters are an opportunity to reach new levels of audience connection.

Now more than ever, the interview — something previously thought to be the exclusive realm of news broadcasters and talk show hosts — returns to the forefront as a key skill and pivot to making good stories great.

1. Start a conversation

A good interviewer works to construct a mirage in front of all the technical dressing; the mirage of two people, sitting together in relaxed surroundings, about to have a conversation.

The fact that your typical subject is untrained, unpredictable and (sometimes) underwhelming, isn’t what’s immediately challenging about an on camera interview. It’s that during the course of that interview the subject’s performance is just one of many critical factors determining the output and usefulness of the session.

You work against time, against light, against sound, against nerves. It’s a completely artificial and to most, unfamiliar, environment in which you must work to encourage honest, forthright conversation.

No stranger to the art of the interview, Tom Brokaw of NBC America, suggests that in an interview what you want to get is the kind of “spontaneous reaction from people that will reveal who they are or what the issue that brings you to this is all about.”

Most interview subjects are sympathetic to your cause, some just want the experience over as soon as possible. All subjects though, will likely have already decided what it is they think you want to hear. Stories that begin from this basis are always certainly the most obvious, and usually the most uninteresting to filmmakers. In an interview you are as much probing for what is unsaid, as what you know the person already has or wants to say. As Brokaw suggests:

“What I do is anticipate how they’re likely to answer a question and try to steer them away from just a cliché of the moment.”

“Anyone who agrees to be interviewed, must decide where to draw the line between what is public and what is private. But the line can shift, depending on who is asking the questions. What puts someone on guard isn’t necessarily the fear of being ‘found out’. It sometimes is just the fear of being misunderstood.’ – Terry Gross

2. Find common ground

Ira Glass, storyteller and host of the popular NPR program This American Life, suggests:

“If you want somebody to tell you a story, one of the most easiest and effective ways is if you’re telling them a story.”

By invoking narrative early in the session, you provide gentle direction to your subject that ‘this is the kind of format we are searching for’ and ‘this is how I want us to talk to each other.’

3. Preparation

While the interview is often thought of the catalyst for production, in our experience, the most appropriate metaphor is much more like an iceberg, with the interview representing a small peak of a much larger process of research and preparation happening below the surface.

By the time most of our key on camera interviews begin, we typically have a story treatment informed by one or more pre-interviews and research.

Whilst this process might at first seem prescriptive, in the context of the final interview it means we are more present in the moment through a better understanding of what is and isn’t significant to the story we are telling today. This does not mean that all of the content of an interview is pre-determined, instead it provides the opportunity to direct questioning towards the most fertile ground whilst probing and exploring from a known path.

Cal Fussman, an interview consultant and writer for Esquire magazine, suggests that preparation is more about the questions you don’t take into the interview than those you do.

“Before every interview I do, I sit down and really think about what I want to ask this person. And I may write down a couple of hundred questions, and I’ll look at those questions really carefully. But before I go into the interview, I just rip them up because I don’t want to be carrying any paper with me, or I don’t want to give the appearance that this is an interview. I want the person to feel at home and in a conversation.”

4. Active listening

Listening is almost as important, if not more, than the asking. A good interviewer directs conversation through a combination of verbal and non verbal communication cues; the way you sit, the eye contact you maintain, the tone of your voice, the silence you place during the conversation. As US talk show stalwart Dick Cavett suggests, do not jump too quickly during a moment of slience:

“You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than ‘uh-huh,’ and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good […] they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say.” — Dick Cavett

Match their tone, mimic their body language, and use eye contact to hold their gaze. The moment your subject catches on that they are in an interview, that will be the end of your interview.

You are just two people talking, and yet no person has ever been more interested in what your subject has to say than you. That is how you capture the story everyone else has overlooked.



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Mark Welker

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.