Here is what it's all about folks. All that preparation and fussing over equipment builds up for the interview itself. Even if you spent hours preparing with research and outline drafting, the quality of the interview ultimatly boils down to your ability to focus and think on your feet. While I can't really teach you that, I can walk through my interview process and some of the techniques I employ. My experience is based on many years of taking depositions. Custom documentaries are much easier because they don't involve opposing counsel objecting or hostile witnesses.
Everything I discuss here is my personal style developed over time. Everyone will conduct an interview using their own style. However, I'll teach you some tips and techniques that can make you a more effective interviewer. The one thing I'm holding back from this discussion is the actual questions I ask. That's my secretsauce right there, and restaurants don't give out their secret sauce recipe, do they?
My interviews proceed more or less linear/chronologically. The reason is simple. I want the interview subject calm and relaxed. I don't want them feeling off balance or blindsided. I want them to have a sense of what is coming next. This is the exact opposite of how I take a deposition, where I fluster witnesses by coming at them from unexpected angles.
Be Present, be interested, be engaged.
It's very important to maintain eye contact. The interview subject needs to know they are heard and comprehended. If the interviewer seems bored, distracted, or disinterested, the subject will pick up on that and rush through the answers. Be present, be interested, be engaged. Turn the ringer off your phone and leave it in another room. If you feel yourself getting antsy, if your attention span is waning, if you need to visit the restroom, then take a break. Stop the recording, stand up, stretch out, get a drink, ask the subject how he/she is doing, and go back on the record feeling fresh. Depending on the interview length, I typically take about three breaks in a recording session.
B. Subject Matter
I open with basic biographical information, like full name, date of birth, place of birth. It's a logical way to start and it helps the subject ease into the process because he/she is likely nervous. Lob out some softballs at first.
While I preached predictability above, I'm going to be a bit inconsistent here. Next I like to mix it up a little and ask about an interesting quirk about the subject. Everyone has a unique habit or mannerism they are known for. Find something that captures the subject's essence and ask them about it. Make it lighthearted because it will help the subject relax and enjoy the process.
Next I'll go back in time and inquire about the subject's parents: their names, origins, careers, how the parents met, courtship, etc. I'll ask about the subject's relationships with their parents and their personalities. I continue moving back in generations with similar questions until I exhaust the subject's knowledge about their heritage.
Then I come back to the subject as a baby and move forward through his/her life. I inquire into childhood, education, family, friends, early ambitions, jobs/career, relationships and accomplishments. Those are the basic areas I cover, but certain subjects, like family and career, can go 30+ minutes in length.
Those are the basic components of the life story interview, but you can go much deeper than that. Once I've covered the biographical information, which can take a couple hours if I'm thorough, I like to go deeper and get to know the subject on an emotional and spiritual level. I inquire into successes and failures, how they learned and grew from dark times and setbacks, regrets, fears, worldview, inspirations, happiness, meaning, etc. I strive to capture a glimpse of the subject's true self. I inquire into religion/spirituality, but avoid politics.
Different people will let you in to varying depths. This depends on their trust level with you and their willingness to share intimate details. Some people are private and disinclined to discuss their feelings. Most men, especially the baby boomer generation, are uncomfortable getting into emotional stuff. I'm not telling you not to try, but manage your expectations. Some people have experienced trauma and keep certain painful moments bottled up. I recommend treading lightly here and employing tact. Don't push if the subject shuts down or changes the subject. This is their story, and they should be allowed to direct the content that is shared. You may proceed with deeper questions if they show they are open.
Better yet, I recommend discussing boundaries either before you start or during break. I like to ask people at the outset, off the record, if there is any subject matter they want me to avoid or gloss over. Let the person know what kind of subject matter is coming up and read whether they are amenable. There is no point dredging up things the subject doesn't want to discuss. This isn't psychotherapy, where you're trying to "fix" someone. Just let it flow. Take what they give you.
I am conscious of continuity in my interviews because I divide the project in to chapters, both for the video and the book. During the interview I think forward to how the subject matter will flow into chapters later when I'm editing. I therefore like to keep subject matter, such as education and career, separated when feasible.
Of course, we're dealing with someone's life story, where everything overlaps, so my job is to find a balance between letting the interview flow naturally while keeping it on track. The video will be hard to watch if the subject meanders arbitrarily, so you have to maintain some degree of control. Don't be afraid to respectfully redirect with, "Yes, we'll definitely cover that in a little bit." That way the person can relax and be patient, knowing their story will come out.
I walk into the interview with an outline that is substantially chronological. A trick I use is to leave a few lines of blank space on my legal pad between subject matter. Here I scribble notes during the interview that help me keep my place as the subject matter often shifts unexpectedly. For example, if you have Education and Marriage separated in your notes, and the subject met her spouse during college, you are going to have some overlap. You have to make a judgment call between running with the courtship angle, or delaying that until you exhaust Education. Overlaps can occur countless other ways, such as Career and Education, or Career and Marriage. You need to be agile and not overly stuck to your outline. As discussed in the last chapter, the outline is a living document that will evolve during the interview. That is why you need space on the left column and between subject matter. When I change the order of my outline, moving subject matter around, I like to use brackets and arrows, while making notes in the left margin.
How you ask the questions is just as important as the questions you ask. You need to adopt a bedside manner (a medical term) that befits your interview subject. On the one hand, you need to show empathy, let the person know you're on the journey with them and you understand how they feel. On the other hand, you need to retain some degree of objectivity and emotional separation. Channel your inner journalist. Make a connection with the subject and get the facts.
Everyone has endured trauma in some form. Some more than others. If the interviewee decides to share a traumatic or sad event with you, you can demonstrate empathy with your facial muscles, body language and tone. Communicate with or without words that you understand they are sharing something difficult or important. These moments require your undivided attention and focus. This is fertile ground for going off script with follow up questions. However, you need to be disciplined about not getting overly emotional. If the interviewee starts crying, you cannot cry! Give her a moment to compose herself, ask if she can continue, then continue. If you become emotionally compromised it will interfere with your mental faculties and you could miss something important. You also don't want to hear youself crying off camera on the video.
Having said that, laugh along if the interviewee shares a humorous story. Isn't it a weird feeling when you share something funny and the other person stares deadpan at you? Don't do that to your interview subject, even if you've heard that paticular story 100 times.
You have to be a curious person
If you are going to be capable of interviewing someone in any context, you have to be a curious person. This attribute cannot be taught. If you are intellectually closed, think you have all the answers, and can't or don't want to learn from others, then you won't be a skilled interviewer. As the subject shares her story, your job is to follow up with questions like: When? How? Where? Who? What happened next? What does that mean? Identify factual gaps in the story being told, and help the subject paint a robust picture about their life.
Some final words about bedside manner. Act like you want to be there. Act like you aren't in a hurry. Show them you care. Make them feel comfortable, interesting, safe and valued, and they will open up to you.
E. It's Not About You!
It is important to remember that the life story interview is not about the interviewer. It is about the person being interviewed. Every word you utter will be recorded on the video (unless you edit yourself out), so you want to be low key. This can be difficult if you're a chatty person or close to the interview subject.
As a general rule you want to let the interviewee do most of the talking. Minimize your compulsion to interject with your own anecdotes or memories. Fight the urge to interrupt like you might do in ordinary conversation. Wait for natural breaks before you speak. This is a vehicle for the other person to share their life, and any experiences you share during the interview should be germane to the story being told.
When you are interviewing a person you know intimately, someone you've known for all or much of your life, the interview may assume a casual and conversational tone. You can help refresh their recollections of events and add your own touches to the stories. Keep in mind that the more you say, the more you become part of the story. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, as it depends on the circustances. Just be aware of the words coming out of your mouth because they become part of the interview.
F. Closing the Interview
When I'm taking my final break, preparing to commence the last portion, I always ask, off the record, if he/she wants to share anything I left out. You will often get a "Yes" here. He/she will summarize what they want to share, and you just need to jot down some notes about what they want covered. Then you go back on the record and finish. When my notes have been exhausted, when we're both tired and I can't think of anything else to ask, I like to close with something like, "Is there anything else you want to share before I stop recording?" If you get a "No," you're free to stop the recording and wrap it up.
Once the interview is over, take a moment to examine how you feel. You are likely exhausted, both physically and mentally. You should also feel pretty good. You just dedicated a couple hours of your life in total service to making another person feel important and validated. You learned things about that person you never knew, and their life lessons will have an effect on you. You just became wiser.
Think of how the interviewee feels. He or she just got their life story off their chest. People receive a sense of certainty and relief from knowing their story will live on. The interview subject also feels significant because another person gave their undivided attention and cared enough to ask questions and listen.
Think of how the loved ones who receive the video will feel. They will be happy to have the video, and will grateful to you for taking the initiative. Everybody wins here. Next we move on to the technical portion - video editing.
About the Blog
Here I write about the evolution of this project, the act of preserving life stories and personal development. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.