Interviewing for Beginners

Each person has their own interviewing style – both in planning and conducting an interview. However, this starter guide should help both new and seasoned interviewers.

5 steps for conducting a great interview

  1. Be prepared – have your questions and equipment ready
  2. Choose the right location for your shoot
  3. Get great footage, light and sound
  4. Get informed consent
  5. Conduct a fantastic interview

Step 1: Be prepared – have your questions and equipment ready

To make the most of your interview, you want to ensure you know as much as you can about the person, what you want to ask and have a plan to get the content that you are looking for. And even though you may conduct unplanned interviews on-the-scene at an event or demonstration, you want to ensure your equipment is always ready – and you know how to use it. Here are a few basic guidelines:

  • Know the person(s) background, stance on the issues and what your goal of the interview is
  • Prepare a general outline of questions – including potential follow-up questions
  • Avoid yes or no questions – ask open-ended questions
  • Always check your equipment beforehand, bring extra batteries and tapes and arrive early
  • Bring appropriate legal releases, consent forms and documentation about your project

Special note: Make sure you choose the right crew size

Whenever possible, you should be working with at least one more person. In this case, while one makes technical arrangements, the other tries to create a relaxed environment with the interviewees so they don’t feel nervous about being videotaped. However, be careful to not have over too many people on your crew, which may make the interviewees even more nervous about their interview than they already are.

Step 2: Choosing a location for your shoot

Choose an optimal location for your shoot to help keep your interviewee comfortable, but ensure that you get good sound and audio. Whenever possible, select a location that is relevant for the issue or topic your interviewee is speaking about – or helps contextualize who they are and why the audience should pay attention to them. If you’re shooting outside, which can often have the best light, choose a spot that has the least amount of noise and distractions. If you’re shooting inside, try to find a room with windows to capture some natural light and make sure to turn-on the ambient lights and turn-off anything that can make noise – clocks, radios, phones(!), etc.

Be intentional about what the context says about your interviewee. Where in this place there is a composition that will not distract the viewer? What does the location ‘say’ about the interviewee – is that your intention? Will they be seated or standing? If seated, make sure your interviewee is sitting on a comfortable, stable chair (not a rotating chair) – and make sure the background is appropriate for the context (ensure there is nothing ‘growing’ out of the top of their head, for example).

Step 3: Get great footage, light and sound

Once you’ve chosen and set-up a position for the interview, you want to put yourself and your equipment in a place to get the best footage and sound you can. Posts “Tips for getting good lighting” and “Tips for getting good sound” go much more in-depth, but here are some key tips:

  • Set the camera at eye-level
  • If using a mic or mics, it’s strongly recommended that each mike go to one sound channel in the camera – if the camera used has such a possibility.
  • Set the camera at eye level for your interviewee; and position the interviewer so that the eyeline between interviewee and interviewer is close to the camera. You want your interviewee to be looking close to, but not directly into the camera.
  • Test the zoom in and out, while trying different frames of the interviewee. You may try a long shot having both on the same frame; a medium shot, having each of them on screen, a medium close-up shot – only the heads and shoulders; and a close-up only the head. Keep in mind that close-ups are very powerful and should not be overused.
  • Test your tripod and make sure it is fluid enough to make movements, but not as loose as the camera won’t stand still on itself.
  • Ask one of the interviewees to hold a white paper before his/her face. Zoom in on the paper and balance the white of the camera.
  • Focus on the interviewee’s eyes for best focus
  • Determine if you will use automatic or manual focus for the shoot (see the “Zoom and Focus” post for more)

Step 4: Get informed consent

Though obtaining consent from an interviewee to use footage of them you film can be a relatively simple process, we work to ensure that we obtain informed consent from all of our interviewees. We do this for many reasons, but least of which is that video about human rights issues is often full of security concerns, communications barriers and is often a balancing act between the importance of getting your message out and the possibility of direct negative consequences for the people you film.

See our guide to informed consent for more details and sample forms.

Step 5: Conducting a fantastic interview

  • Record your introduction to the project, what the interview is for and get their informed consent on camera
  • Have your interviewee(s) say and spell their name and any affiliation they would like to note (occupation, for example)
  • Note important names, places, events and dates.
  • Be an active listener – maintain eye contact and try to avoid planning your next question while the interviewee is speaking as it can result in not listening to their answer
  • Follow the direction of the conversation, but restate original topic or refer to your outline of questions if the interview gets off-track
  • Be very careful and strategic when redirecting a conversation to its main topic
  • Always seek out the details – who, what, when, where, why and how. For example, if the interviewee mentions a police presence, ask about their attitudes, how many of them were there, was there a particular figure that stands out more than others, etc. Detailed, individual stories are what punctuate an event and stick in the memory
  • Be reassuring and respect interviewee’s feelings. Guard against exploitation or questions that reveal something the interviewee would like to remain confidential.
  • If interviewee is uncomfortable with the camera, sometimes showing him/her how it works will make him or her more at ease
  • Don’t speak while the interviewee is speaking – avoid making verbal encouragement like “uh-huhs” or “yeahs”. Instead, use silent encouragement – nods, smiles, etc.
  • Feel free to repeat a question in case the answer was too confusing or too broken into pieces
  • Create a successful visual ending to the interview, such as having the subjects leaving the location and the frame of camera, having close-ups of their content/discontent faces on the frame; having them leaving together and walking straight away from the camera; etc.
  • Always ask the subjects if there is anything else that they would like to say, or add that you haven’t addressed. Trust your research, but don’t assume it’s flawless.

Special note: If using the interview for testimonial purposes (as evidence), remember to keep the camera running at all times. Doing multiple takes could be interpreted as tampering. See “Video for Evidence” to learn more.

What’s Next? Interviewing Victims of Trauma

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