What I’ve Learned So Far about Interviewing for Video and Audio Stories
Tips from a pro on how to prepare for, set-up and conduct interviews for audio or visual stories.
In New York, I was once nicknamed “Question Boy”. I chalked this up to intercultural differences – I grew up in North Carolina, and maybe my New York City friends just don’t get that for Southerners, being curious is a form of politeness. I’ve decided to own it. You see, I enjoy talking to strangers, and that has translated into my love for interviewing, a process I’m still learning how to do well.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of people for video and radio projects, for both nonprofit organizations and broadcast media. So I’ve decided to compile some of the lessons I’ve learned. These recommendations can be applied to both video and audio-only interviews, but are by no means exhaustive. Feel free to add recommendations of your own in the comments section below.
Learn from the best interviewers: I’ve learned a lot from experts like Studs Terkel, Terry Gross, Anna Sale and Brooke Gladstone. Terkel once said, “It’s a conversation, not an interview.”
Carefully choose who to interview: Selecting the person you want to interview could be the subject of an entire article in itself. While everyone has a story, it’s important to consider who is most knowledgeable about your topic, who has the time for a one to two hour long interview, and who can tell engaging stories to illustrate their points. You should consider doing a brief “pre-interview” with your subject to make sure they’re the best fit.
Think about your goals and prepare for them: When preparing for meeting with the person you’ll interview NPR’s Audie Cornish says it’s important to have a focal point or a “North Star” for your interview. Lulu Miller of Invisibilia boils down her questions to a handful of mental images from scenes that she wants to illustrate. Think about what your target audience would most want to know. Write out your questions beforehand: don’t wing it. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes, no or other single words. Also, try to memorize your questions – referencing a piece of paper or your mobile phone during the interview will interrupt the flow, so don’t do it!
Be ethical; be up front: As you’re scheduling the interview, be sure that the your subject understands that you will be recording them. Never record without consent. Also, be prepared by either buying extra batteries or finding back up recording equipment to bring along.
INTERVIEW SET UP:
Where you record, shapes the story: Be sure to choose an interview location that allows for the best sound possible. Usually for seated interviews, you want a quiet space to record in. A “sound rich” or noisy space is best when you’re recording someone in action, or for B-roll, but not necessarily for the meat of the story. While street noise, coffee shop sounds or background music can add ambience, this type of natural sound makes editing harder and may distract from the more integral parts of your story. You can add these sounds easily when in post-production if needed, so, it is best to find someplace with carpeting and lots of sound absorbing surfaces like curtains and sofas and little background noise to record in. If there’s a noisy refrigerator nearby, unplug it (but remember to plug it back in)!
If you can’t interview in person, you can still get good content: For remote interviews (not in-person), try not to use “phone tape", or (audio that has been recorded over the phone). Telephone technology reduces and compresses sound in order to transmit it, so you’ll get clipped audio that leaves out whole ranges of sound. Tape syncers – people you can hire to sit next to the interview subject and record them while you talk on the phone – are ideal but you need a budget to pay them. You can also try asking the person you’re interviewing to record themselves with a smartphone while you talk on a landline. Just be sure to stop/start recording frequently throughout the interview to create multiple files so you don’t lose anything. If you don’t have these options and/or need video, you can record via Google Hangouts or Skype.
Your arrival is part of the story: Be sure to arrive a little early for the interview. You will need this time to find the best location, and to set-up. Start recording before the interview starts and continue after it finishes, so you can get audio of your subject’s arrival, departure, and other candid sounds and snippets of conversation. I learned this from a tape sync for Love + Radio.
Video interviews are more complicated than audio-only: For video interviews, sit next to the camera so your face is near the lens. Ask the interview subject to look at you, not the camera. This will make them more comfortable. Remember, mic-ing video interviews is more complicated than audio interviews because you need to hide the microphone. Andrew Norton provides some useful tips on the process.
Sound quality is key no matter what: Be sure to wear headphones – whether you are making a video or an audio story, you need to know exactly what the audio sounds like in the recording. You might not be aware of some sounds in the room or if your device might not be recording. Consider “mic-ing”, or pointing the mic at yourself when you ask questions, to ensure that your voice is recorded as part of the interview, too. For audio interviews, placing the mic at a distance the size of an ice-cream cone, 5-6 inches under the interview subject’s mouth works best. Before starting the interview, test your audio levels with small talk, i.e. “What did you have for breakfast?” Your average audio levels should be at -15 dBfs and peaks at -3 dBfs.
DURING THE INTERVIEW:
Ask leading questions: Once you’ve tested your audio levels and equipment, ask the person you’re interviewing to introduce themselves, i.e. “Please introduce yourself.” This primes them to answer in complete sentences. (something that can be vital when editing). This is much better than saying “What’s your name?” or “State your name” which result in answers that are incomplete sentences or phrases. Even so, you might need to remind them to answer in complete sentences during the interview. It’s also your responsibility to ask questions that elicit the type of responses you are looking for. One of the best interview questions is, “Then what happened?” This ensures you get stories and reflections from your interview subject, not just statements.
Signal that you’re listening: During the interview, let the person you’re talking to know that you’re listening by nodding your head and smiling when appropriate. Avoid responding with “uh-huh” and other audible affirmations. Be comfortable with pauses. Take a split second before you to respond so you don’t interrupt or “step on” what the other person is saying. Don’t be afraid to share something about yourself in the conversation. This helps build trust.
Think ahead but be present: As the interviewer, you need to be present and listen to your subject, all while editing the story in your head. If the interview subject is the only voice in the piece, is there anything missing that would help tell their story?
Wrap up with this critical question: One thing I often forget to do is recording room tone. For editing purposes, you often need the ambient sound of the room with no one talking (air conditioning, etc.). To remember to do this, I’ve learned a useful technique from my colleague Katie Klocksin: stop towards the end of the interview and say “Now I need to record the sound of the room with no one talking for 30 seconds. While I do this, could you think of anything you’d like to add or something I didn’t ask about?” You will be amazed by the responses you will get! At the end of the interview, ask the interview subject to introduce themselves again. They’re often more relaxed at this point. Plus this ensures you have two takes to choose from.
Get consent: It is important to record your interview subject giving consent. For video interviews, ask the interview subject to sign a release form. For audio interviews, consent is implied, but consider asking your subject to also sign a release form, or record them giving verbal consent by saying something like “My name is ___ and give permission for you to use this audio recording.”
AFTER THE INTERVIEW:
Visuals Matter: If it’s an audio interview, take a photo of the person to accompany the piece. Here are NPR’s tips on taking good photos.
Follow up: After the meeting, it’s important to follow up with your interview subject to thank them for their time and input. Send them the final product when it’s publicly available.
There’s so much more to learn about interviewing, a lot of which one can only learn by conducting interviews yourself. For more food for thought, check out these resources:
- Howsound podcast
- National Public Radio training
- Storytelling for Social Change from Working Narratives
- Aquifer Media
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