interview blues

Back before I wrote speeches and bullied undeserving graphic designers for a living, I was an interviewer for several television shows in the History-Discovery-Learning Channel mode. We all know the format: a portentous narrator, some stock footage of the Second World War or time-lapse shots of amoebas battling paramecia, then a series of interviews spliced into low-budget reenactments. Did you ever wonder about the person off-camera in those shows, the one in whom the talking heads are confiding their life secrets/expertise on tanks/wacky antics? Imagine me, unshaven and smelling of a mix of hotel soap and mounting desperation, coaxing answers out of people unused to having a camera pointed at them, and reciting to myself, mantra-like, this stranger is my new best friend, this stranger is my long-lost grandparent, we’re having a grand old time in this cable-webbed, silk-shrouded living room.

With only a few exceptions, most of the people I interviewed were not media professionals, politicians or celebrities. They were survivors of accidents and crimes, family members, police officers, owl-eyed historians or amateur aviation experts. They were ordinary people, and like most of us, they had no idea how to talk in front of a camera.

There are two ways that most of us respond to the presence of that unblinking glass eye. We either freeze up and deliver lines as if each phrase were a chunk broken off from a dripping icicle of thought, or we ignore the device altogether and talk ‘naturally’. I’m not sure which produces worse results. Watching fearful people dress up their speech with well-meant malapropisms is not fun, but an interviewee entirely forgetful of the camera can result in hours of fascinating, engaging, utterly useless conversation. It’s like going to buy a suit and being sold a few yards of nice Italian wool – undoubtedly of fine quality, but it’s not much good for your next job interview or wedding appearance.

A successful interview can be measured by the number and quality of ‘clips’ that it delivers (or sound bites, if you like that term). Depending on the purpose, a good clip can be informative, edifying, persuasive or heart-rending (if it ends in a brief pause and then fresh glinting tears), but most of all, a good clip is self-contained. It provides enough context so that even a viewer who has just flipped the channel can understand a good portion of what’s going on. Good clips avoid pronouns, hoard adjectives for maximum impact, keep the metaphors simple and evocative. Relative terms such as ‘here’ and ‘there’ are discarded in favour of ‘behind the shed’ or ‘in my face’. Here are some examples of terrible responses that interviewees have given me:

‘Yes’ or ‘No’. [Note: A good interviewer will avoid asking yes or no questions. But that won’t stop some people from giving yes or no answers. Also the variants ‘Yes it was’ and ‘No it wasn’t’ or ‘uh-huh’, ‘oh for sure’, ‘you betcha’ and the emphatic ‘absolutely’.]

‘It was horrible’. [What was horrible?]

‘I saw it happen’. [What happened exactly?]

‘When it happened I was as close as I am now to that guy with the camera over there (points to camera)’. [I am going to reach over and strangle you now.] [Often we interviewed people in their living rooms. The familiarity of the setting sometimes caused people to use cues from their surroundings. This is bad interview and bad memory. Not only does it restrict the audience to the small demographic of People Who Know What's In Your Living Room, I will not take your story seriously if everything is framed in terms of how you've arranged the furniture.]

‘It’s like I said to you earlier…’. [When you interview people in their homes, there can be anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes of set-up time. Lights need to be set up, furniture needs rearranging, settings need endless tweaks. During that time the interviewee will try to talk about the subject of the interview – in effect, scooping him or herself and drying out the reservoir of emotion that comes from relating something to someone for the first time. The interviewer will often divert the conversation, but the situation is artificial and awkward, and the temptation to talk about your actual purpose for invading someone’s home is very strong. Avoid it and your interview will be free of phrases alluding to other conversations. Again, this is not always possible. Your interviewee has already spoken with a researcher or the person who has set up the interview. Often the interviewee has consented to the interview based on the strength of the relationship formed with that researcher/coordinator/whomever. So you’ll get people saying “It’s like I told Lyn on the phone,” or even worse, “Well, I already told Lyn all about it, so I don’t see the need to go into it all over again”. THANKS A LOT, LYN.]

‘I don’t know anything about that’. [Fuck you so very much. I spent three hours in a plane, booked myself into a stinky Super 8, hauled a crapload of equipment into your living room and spent the last hour making aimless conversation while we turned your mobile home into a mini-studio, and now you claim ignorance about the very topic you agreed to be interviewed on. Next time, just say you’re lonely and you like the attention, and we’ll send you a box of chickens in the mail.]