By Kevin Elliott
There is nothing more compelling than a human showing what’s in their heart.
I’ve done hundreds of video interviews across the country. And we at Wewa Films specialize in heartfelt stories, so we are always going for the emotion. Over those years and interviews, I’ve learned how to get a subject to relax and express themselves in a genuine, touching way.
Here’s what I do.
1. Celebrate Your Subject
As the interviewer, your job is to get the subject to say good, interesting things in a good, interesting way. But you are nervous and they are nervous. So the interview goes more like a formal interrogation and the subject looks stiff, nervous, and scattered.
You are bringing that energy, not them.
So get out of your head and celebrate your subject. By “celebrate” I mean change your tone and posture from interrogator to excited friend who can’t wait to hear another friend’s story. Lean toward them, open your eyes wide when they are telling their story. Let your jaw drop. Laugh with them. Nod your head. Be really expressive.
If you show interest in them—real interest—they will pick up that energy and open up. You’ll see them smile and their hands will start to move. Their eyes will twinkle. They’ll forget they are being interviewed, which is the entire point.
Here’s an example, some clips from a project we did with an organization called the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center. These people deal with terrible cases of abuse, an incredibly hard job. But just look at their expressions when they learned we were there to celebrate them.
Most people think their lives and stories are not worth filming. If you signal that it is important to you, they will respond, I promise.
And if you are not genuinely interested in what your subject has to say, you should not do the interview. Read that again.
2. Lose the Notes (Do Your Homework)
The most powerful tool you have to engage an interview subject is eye contact. You cannot have eye contact with your subject if you are looking at notes. So lose them.
You should know your subject’s story and background well enough that you can just have a conversation with them guided by a few talking points. By holding your notes, you show you are not prepared or confident, and that is exactly what your subject needs you to be. If you need notes, you don’t know your stuff well enough to do the interview.
The only time it is appropriate to bring out your notes is at the very end. Glance over them to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
Another tip: Have an assistant producer or even camera operator hold your notes and follow along. At the end of the interview, ask them if you missed anything.
3. Put Emotion Over Information
Yes, you need facts and information out of your subject. But you want to tap their emotions as quickly as possible. So put your “informational” questions at the beginning of the interview, then switch to “aspirational” questions.
The root of aspirational is “aspire.” In other words, hopes, dreams, longings, feelings. The “whys” of life. This is the magical stuff. Take your subject there as quickly as possible.
For example, we did a project for McDonald’s about how restaurants around the country helped each other in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. They made gift bags for each other, sent supplies, even sent Big Macs and chicken nuggets to healthcare workers. Great story.
When I interviewed the subjects, I started by asking them to explain their role in the effort (information).
They would say something like, “I helped pack bags” or “I managed logistics between the restaurants.” Important, but not aspirational.
After they talked a while, I went aspirational.
I asked them to tell me how it felt to be part of a global brand that values helping each other over productivity and profits.
And they lit up! Smiles, tears, heart.
The question I asked had the two elements you need to elicit an aspirational response:
- Ask how they feel, not what they think.
- Frame their job as bigger than the job description (helping each other over productivity and profits).
We all want to have meaning and see our story as important. Help your subject feel that way and they will glow.
Btw, here are a few snippets from the project. Look at the joy.
4. Allow for Serendipity
Many times, a subject will throw a curve ball and say something completely unexpected, but interesting. Do not move on or squelch that moment. Follow up on it because that usually makes the best content.
Watch your subject’s posture and especially their eyes (another reason to lose your notes). They will brighten when they get on a subject that lights their fire. Those moments make for great video interview material.
You Serve Them, Not the Other Way Round
Yes, you have a job to do, but your interview subject is doing you the favor.
Act like it.
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