Five Tips for Making an Interview Subject More Comfortable

One of the most challenging aspects of my job as a director of documentary style commercial videos is working with non-professional “talent.” That is, regular ol’ Janes and Joes who do not have any kind of formal media training or background.

When interviewing high-profile individuals, or when working with C-level executives (e.g. CEO, COO, etc.) it’s not as bad because these people will typically have the experience that comes with speaking in front a camera and remaining comfortable. But many times I’m working with or interviewing folks who have never been interviewed for a video (at least not a professionally produced video). So it’s my job to make them at ease and get the “performance” I need. I know that may sound funny, especially if I’m shooting a doc style video with no script. But, make no mistake, as the director, you need to direct. That means getting the kind of soundbites you want from your subject, even if they have no formal training.

Here are five tips I’ve gleaned over the years in getting great performances out of non-trained talent.

  1. Pre-consults. Before getting the client in front of the camera, I sit down with them to talk about the project and to really get to know them. Not just know their business, but them as people. What makes them laugh? What’s important to them? What are their hopes and dreams? Favorites movies? Whatever can give me insight into their persona and character.
  2. Warm up. You wouldn’t jump into a major sporting contest before stretching and warming up. The same goes for an interview. Don’t start the interview cold. Spend a few minutes with them in front of the camera, and just shoot the breeze. Talk about school, family, kids, movies, what have you. Get their juices flowing and get them used to being in front of the camera.
  3. Establish trust. Before the cameras roll, you need to establish a relationship of trust. They need to know that you have their best interests in mind; that you will make them look and sound good. Just a like a doctor might explain a procedure in detail to a patient, you can do the same. Explain how you will use the video and audio. Maybe you’re only going to use the audio, so they don’t need to worry about that zit that appeared on their nose that morning. Remind them of samples on your website they might have seen and commented on. Tell them that those people were in the same position as they are, and didn’t they come out looking and sounding good?
  4. Let it roll. Starting filming and recording right away, even if much of what will be said during the “warm up” phase will not be used. You never know when someone might say or do something that will actually be a great addition to the video. If they flub, keep rolling. The only time I’ll stop to conserve card space is if they are really stuck on a question and taking a long time doing nothing trying to figure out their answer.
  5. Keep it conversational. Make the interview a conversation, as opposed to an inquisition. Just chat and talk with them as if you’re two old friends meeting together.

Here’s a bonus tip for you. Turn off the red record light. If you have a camera that shows this light on the front, turn it off if you can. That red flashing light can make people more nervous. It also makes it easier for you to start recording without them knowing it, keeping them at ease. I’ve had situations where I’ve gotten 10 minutes or more of great, relaxed and natural material of a subject talking away because he/she didn’t know the camera was going. Works like a charm.

Below is a short montage of clips from a recent set of interviews I recorded for the making of a promotional video for Mighty 8th Media, a boutique brand design and marketing firm. These are excerpts from the “warm up” phase I mentioned above. Notice how the subjects grow more comfortable as they talk about their history, or as I engage in small talk.

What tips can you share for getting great performances from untrained talent?

7 thoughts on “Five Tips for Making an Interview Subject More Comfortable

  1. Nice slate! That slate is Grade A ‘Official’.

    Great blog bro – This comes naturally for some charismatic, ‘people persons’ but not everyone.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Glad you like the Slate. I bring only the best equipment with me on a job. 😉

      From what I hear, you’re a rather good people person. 🙂

  2. I also find reminding talent that this is not live television and so it is possible to do things again.

    Definitely keeping the camera rolling as much as possible can grab you some real gold.


  3. Great post Ron, very good tips. Like Kim, I also find it useful to remind people that it’s not live and I’ll only be using short sequences – the best bits of the interview.

    A friend of mine used to be a local reporter for the BBC and he says whenever he had to do a piece to camera (which often were live!) he would just pretend that the equipment was broken and nobody could see him except his cameraman. good to know that even the pros get nervous too!


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