How to ask questions

Interviewing for a video news story is unlike any other interview. You need to elicit responses, but you need focused and complete sentence answers, not one word answers or partial sentences.

So here we go.
Rule One – relax your subject. Begin with the small talk…and first question on camera should be the ever familiar “say your name and spell it.” This takes care of two problems – pronounciation and proper spelling. You might also add, “what is your official title” in some cases.
Rule Two – don’t talk while the subject is talking. No “uhs” or “yeahs”. Nothing. Anything you say will be recorded and unless you have time to edit out all of your interruptions, just keep quiet and nod your head.
Rule Three – ask questions that require a full answer. Don’t ask questions that draw one word answers.
BAD – “Do you agree with President Bush about the need for increasing the number of American troops in the Middle East?” An experienced subject will say yes or no and then expand…but you may just get a straight yes or no.
GOOD – “What is your reaction to President Bush’s agenda to increase the number of American troops in the Middle East?” You should get a good response to this one.
BAD – “Do you think the Governor is doing a good job?”
GOOD – “What do you think the Governor is doing right?”
Rule Four – Once you’re through with your agenda, ask one final question: “Do you have anything to add?” or “Is there anything I may not have brought up that you’d like to discuss?” This may take you in a whole new direction (or not), but it does allow your subject to vent or bring up issues you may not know about. In one case you allow them to let off steam (remember, you don’t have to use it) and in the other case you may pick up some critical information.

Rules to shoot interviews:
One: make sure the light is good. If it looks bad in the viewfinder, it is bad.
Two: make sure the audio is good. If you think it sounds good, you’re wrong. It is either good or not good enough. Use a clip-on or stick mike up close and make sure you wear a headset when you check audio.
Three: tripod your interview. Every time you breath, the camera breaths with you, and that’s distracting to the viewer.
Four: have the subject look at you, not the camera
Five: if you have interviews with opposing views, set them up so they are looking in different directions. Subject #1 might look to screen right/Subject #2 might look to screen left. This creates a sense of conflict visually.
Six: if the background is boring, fill the screen with your subject
Seven: if the background is interesting, frame the subject so they fill about one third of the screen with the background framed behind them
Eight – preroll. In other words, start the camera AND THEN start the interview. Allow ten seconds after the interview is over before shutting off the camera. That way you don’t lose any critical sound

The purpose of a video interview is to elicit complete responses. Your quesitions most likely will not be used…remember, it is not about you. It is all about the story and information.


2 thoughts on “How to ask questions

  1. Any suggestions about how to politely interrupt them when they go on and on about something you don’t need? If time and tape allow, I usually just wait them out, but sometimes that
    is not an option and I have to do the, “excuse me'” but…
    It can be a tricky moment.

  2. If I have time, I’m polite. If I don’t have time, I am firm (and possibly borderline rude). Suggestions:
    “Hey…we’re kinda getting off track here…and I only have a few minutes on air for this story.”
    “Excuse me…this is fascinating, but I have another interview/appointment scheduled in (make up a time)…mind if we wrap this up?”
    Rude (or borderline)
    This is why we have stick mikes…never ever give the mike to the subject. Just pull the mike back, look them in the eye, rephrase the question. If they balk or head in another direction, pull the mike back, firmly state exactly what you want from them and restate the question. If there is arguement, explain that you are on a tight schedule and want a precise answer – that only fifteen to thirty seconds can be used on air no matter how much they talk. If they ramble, they will look bad. Give them one last chance to give a focused answer…in either case, thank them and walk off.
    Remember – you really aren’t being rude. You are being efficient.

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