Philly Creative Guide

Here's the Thing

Bill Haley

Thoughts on Interviewing
by Bill Haley, 1 Jun 2009

Bill Haley is President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (www.AlliedPixel.com), an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He is also an evangelist for PhillyCreativeGuide.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


I am standing in a corporate conference room. Immediately to my left is a large camera. Standing to the left of that, peering into the viewfinder, is Tom, my director of photography. To his left and wearing headphones is Jeff, our sound operator. To his left is Dave, our grip. To my right is Paul, our producer. To his right is Juanita, our production assistant and to her right is Loren, our makeup artist. Behind them are two executives from Corporate Communications, peering intently at a monitor and scribbling notes. Completing the Semicircle of Fear are two sets of Kinoflo Diva light banks and a microphone boom. And standing five feet in front of me is the CEO of this Fortune 500 company. The interview is about to begin. But wait! I notice something. His right eye is beginning to twitch, ever so slightly. And a tiny little bead of sweat has popped up along his hairline, above his left eyebrow. It is time for some Creative Distraction.

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I furrow my brow, turn to Tom and say, "Can we look at that key light," which is code for "give me five minutes." He and Dave busy themselves with fiddling. I walk over to Rick, the CEO. "I'm sorry, we need a couple minutes to adjust the light. So did Kaitlin ace that exam?" And immediately, miraculously, Rick loosens up. His whole body becomes flexible again. He even smiles. Two days before, I had done a pre-interview with him on the phone, and I knew that his daughter, a sophomore at Penn, was studying for a midterm. He spent the next couple minutes absolutely gushing about her. We got back to the interview and he was a new man.

I don't know how many interviews I have done over the past 16 years. I'm sure there have been hundreds. And over that time, I've given a lot of thought about how to do an interview. I have seen interviewees hyperventilate, throw up, pass out and storm out of the room. I have also seen people reveal their souls so beautifully that I found myself holding back tears.

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Being the subject of an interview is not easy. It's much easier to be the person asking the questions. Some people are instinctively comfortable on camera and can make an interview look effortless. The vast majority, though, are nearly terrified of the experience and without help will stumble through it, hands clenched, thoughts unfocused. When the main motivation is simply not to make a fool of yourself on camera, the bar has been set pretty low in terms of getting an engaging interview. So as the interviewer, your first job is to create an environment they will feel comfortable in.

You must quickly move to establish trust with your subject. There are many ways to do that, and if you are unsure, I'd recommend you read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." After 73 years it is still the definitive work on the subject, and it will change your life for the better. In an interview you have a very limited amount of time to establish rapport, so you must move decisively.

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Your interview subject will take his cues from you. If you are relaxed, it will help him relax. If you are confident, it will help him be confident. If you are energetic, it will help him be energetic. I find this to be true on shoots in general. (And life in general, for that matter.) A relaxed, friendly, even jovial atmosphere on the set always leads to better performances from everyone. The looser, the better. Come prepared with a humorous story and take time to listen to everyone. Make it fun. How great a job is that?

I prefer for my interview subjects to stand rather than sit. Why? Well first of all, people think better on their feet (literally.) It gives them more energy. It also frees them from the physical confines of sitting in a chair. (I want people to get loose, gesture with their arms and move around a bit. Isn't that what they do in "real life?") Now what if your subject really, really would prefer to sit? Here's what you say: "Have a seat, my friend."

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If you are a student of film, you no doubt appreciate the critical importance of eyes and eyelines. I like to sit right next to the camera, as close as possible. Sometimes my head actually touches the side of the lens. This brings my subject's eyeline nearly on axis with the camera. That, in turn, helps to establish the viewer's emotional attachment with the interview subject. Conversely if you want to emotionally alienate the viewer, shoot the subject from an oblique angle. (A popular trend right now is to cut back and forth between two cameras, one on axis and the other way off axis, nearly putting the subject in profile. Needless to say, I'm not a fan.)

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Now you might ask, "What is all this talk of emotion? What if I am merely shooting a training video, or a corporate announcement? Who needs emotion?" Well, I believe we all do. That's because we must care about something before we are really willing to consider it. Life itself is emotion. You cannot truly convey information without also conveying emotion.

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Most of the people I interview are not famous. They have not done anything spectacular, like climbing Mt. Everest or walking on the moon. They have not starred in a movie or discovered a cure for cancer. That does not mean they don't have a worthwhile story to tell. With a little nurturing, they can reach a comfort zone that allows them to tell it well. As an interviewer, it is my job to help get them there.

Print Article Brought to you by: Bill Haley | President, Interactive of Allied Pixel