Conducting Testimony Interviews

Interviewing people is an art form, and it's a continual learning process. Everyone is different, and when you interview one person, they may react to a set of questions differently than another person would. All this to say that the "rules of interviewing people" is a constantly changing list and i'm sure amendments could be added every time you interview someone new. That being said, here are a few rules that we follow that has helped us out throughout the process of capturing and telling someone's story.


- Talk to them on the phone first.

The initial phone conversation is crucial and does a lot of different things. It gets both parties familiar with one another. It makes the person telling the story more comfortable and accustomed to telling the specific story (especially if they havent told it in a long time, or they have never said it aloud before). It also gives the interviewer an idea of what the story is about, and what the person is like, and can give them some ideas on how to frame up the questions on the day of shooting. And lets be honest, it can reveal if the story is not a good fit for a video, or if the person may not have an easy time telling it. Like I said - it does a lot of things.

- Tell them to wear solids and bring a few options for tops.

Some patterns and outfits look great in person, but on camera might not react well. Its also a good idea to stay away from brand logos and graphic tees as this can be a distraction to the story. Avoid problems with this by getting them to wear solid colors and bringing a few options.

- Discourage them from practicing or rehearsing

This one is tricky and I'm sure a lot of people might disagree with this. I just find that when someone has practiced and rehearsed their story, They can sometimes come across as not genuine or just stating facts. I like it more conversational, like they are sitting down for coffee with a friend. A good interviewer can bring a story out of someone just with conversational tone. Like I said - practice.

- Sit down with them when they arrive, don't let them see the setup process.

The cameras and lights are intimidating - no doubt about it. If they see the crew setting everything up, it only makes them more nervous. Avoid this by having someone sit down with them away from the setup, or have everything set up before they get there. Make them feel comfortable and start talking with them before the interview starts either about their story or just even their day so far. It will make them more at ease.

- Tell them you are there to make them look good.

The biggest fear that they have is looking like an idiot on camera. Tell them that they are going to do great and that you will make them look good. assure them that their bumbles and rambles will be removed and that they don't need to edit themselves. let me repeat that - THEY DONT NEED TO EDIT THEMSELVES! It's the job of the editor to take out there "Ums" and "Uh"s. They just need to talk and tell their story.

- Tell them that they may repeat the same things over and over

To get a story, you might need to get them to tell certain parts of the story over and that this is a part of it; and that it doesn't mean they are doing a bad job. I lot of times we just want to make the edit easier, and get them to restate something and omit or add details. As interviewers, we must understand that the details of the story are important to them, because its a part of their story. But some details aren't crucial to the overall story - and can sometimes make the story longer than it needs or even cause confusion for the viewer. So its a part of the process to take out certain details, or be general with certain parts of the story, but its more important that they know that repeating things doesn't mean that they are doing poorly or that particular parts of their story aren't important.

-Keep it as a conversation.

Remember its like sitting down for a cup of coffee and talking. As an interviewer, you must, Must, MUST remain engaged. To look down or away while they are talking can make them feel less comfortable and remind them that they are on camera. We even like to have an interviewer stay with them the whole time, and not be left in front of the lights and cameras by themselves.

Make them feel comfortable, and maintain that.

- Phrase every question with a "what, how, where, why, when"

"Where does this story begin?"

"How did that make you feel?"

"What are some of the things you learned from this?"

Its important to avoid starting question with "talk about" or "tell me about". These questions  can easily be loaded and make the interviewee not sure of where to start or where to take the story next. As an interviewer you have to put yourself in their shoes, "talk about your day" is harder to answer than, "what is something funny that happened to you today?"

- Tell them to always frame up the question.

After you ask a question, make sure they know to frame it up in a complete sentence with context. Sense we dont normally have the interviewer on camera, or have the audience hear the question being asked, its important to have the person give context to what they are talking about. For example, if the interview question was “What is the first thing you do in the morning?”, they might say, “I make breakfast.” Then we just ask them to give it some context, They will come back with, “the first thing i do in the morning is make breakfast.” Its as easy as getting them to say two or three extra words and it makes the edit a lot easier.

- Have your questions set them up for success.
You will find that they may be having an easy time starting their thoughts or phrasing something, so a good technique is setting them up for a successful answer by the way you ask a question. You can do this by giving them trigger words like, "How is leading a small group rewarding" then they will probably lead their answer with "The most rewarding thing about leading a small group is..." We will often even tell them to finish a sentence for us, for example, "Im excited about getting baptized today because..." then they wont feel stuck and you will have a nice, concise statement to use. 

- Do not let them feel like they have to memorize what they said.

If a person is needing to restate parts of their story several times, either to leave out details or tell it concisely, make sure they are not feeling the pressure to memorize what they are saying. the more times they repeat parts of the story, the bigger tendency they have to script themselves. This puts unneeded pressure on themselves and can make them come across as if they are scripted and may seem sterile. I know this is hard to explain, but trust me, you know it when you see it.

- Focus them on narrative first, then follow up with commentary.

When you are asking questions its a good idea to get them to tell the story first, then ask them to bring thought to it. For example, the question could be, "what happened during the storm that night?" then the response could be, "on the night of the storm a tree fell on our house." then you can follow up with, "and what were you feeling at the time?". then they might say something like, "we were terrified and felt vulnerable". This technique brings a lot of emotion to the story, and brings the audience into that emotion. Its a simple example, I know, but its a crucial part of telling a story.

-Make sure you have a possible ending statement before ending the interview

A story is only as good as its ending. period. Don't let them get out of the chair unless you know that they have wrapped it up in a great way. For us, this is usually bragging on God for what he's done in their life. Our signature thing to tell them is, "Brag on God for what he's done". They usually smile, and give great praise to what He's done in their life. BAM! thats a wrap! Then big hugs, Thank them for coming in, congratulate them on doing a great job, and the interview is done.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have a question, or if you have a rule that you live by while conducting an interview. We would love to hear what you have learned!