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Tips for Conducting a Documentary / Reality TV Interview

When it comes to conducting an interview, planning ahead is very important. I recently witnessed one where, at least a few times, the interviewer looked off into space and asked “Hmmm… now what else can I ask you?” The lack of preparedness took up a lot of precious time for all parties involved, so the following will outline types of interviews and how you can effectively structure them.

Funnel vs. Inverted Funnel

First of all, when it comes to time constraints, there are two types of interviews – the funnel and the inverted funnel. If you imagine putting oil in your car, the funnel is wide on top with a small opening at the bottom. In interview form, the “funnel” means asking broad, general questions first, then leading in to more specific, tougher questions. The “inverted funnel” is just the opposite – asking the tough questions first, followed by broad questions.

Of course, the small end of the funnel doesn’t exactly have to consist of “tough” questions. Rather, it’s the meat and bones of your interview… it’s the reason you’re conducting an interview to begin with. Whether you ask the important questions at the beginning or the end of the interview is based on how much time you have. If you only have a few minutes, use the inverted funnel approach. If you have all day, structure your interview as a funnel.

Closed vs. Open-ended Questions

Once you’ve nailed down your timetable, the next step is to formulate your questions. An interview can branch off in many directions, but it’s best to have basic questions to refer to in case it doesn’t… or to get your interview back on track. In general, you want to avoid asking closed questions, which are those that can elicit a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are employed as a way to try to get the interviewee talking. To get an open-ended answer, formulate your questions to begin with the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why + how). Unless you’re seeking information to rewrite later (for something like a newspaper article or blog), avoid starting questions with “did.” Rather than asking “Did it feel great to finish the race?” ask “How great did it feel to finish the race?”

The Interview

Make the interviewee feel comfortable beforehand, if possible. Offer him or her some tea or water. Build some rapport so the person isn’t over-thinking what questions you might ask. If applicable, before the official interview, chat it up with small talk (but steer clear of your interview questions) by asking “How was your flight?” “Where are you from?” “How is your day?”

When it’s time for the interview, ask the interviewee his or her name and to spell it out. Professionally, there is little worse than trying to cite someone but spelling the name wrong. It’s important to note that, in the journalism field, a misspelled name can have legal repercussions.

If an interviewee doesn’t fully answer your question, it may be for a multitude of reasons, including he/she a) might not understand the question, b) doesn’t want to, c) may ramble and forget the question, and d) can’t due to lack of knowledge on the subject.

If the interview is a tough one and the source is hostile, do your best to avoid arguing. Otherwise, the interviewee might shut down, effectively ending the interview. Try getting a hostile interviewee to open up by a) revisiting/rewording a question that was previously unanswered, b) saving the tough question(s) for the end of the interview, c) offering the interviewee a chance for a rebuttal to something damaging someone said about him or her (relevant to the interview, of course), and d) providing sympathy/understanding that the answer might be difficult.

Examples The following sample questions are from a reality show pilot episode I worked on a few years back. It centered around a modeling agency and the models that work for it, so these Qs should at least give you a good idea of some open-ended interview questions.

1) Please introduce yourself to the camera. 2) Please spell out your name. 3) What is your occupation? 4) Describe your first photo shoot. 5) How does it feel when you see your photos after a shoot? 6) How do you get your week started? 7) What would you say is your favorite thing about modeling? 8) How do people react when they find out you are a model? 9) What goes through your mind during a photo shoot? 10) What are your future goals in the business? 11) What were you doing before you started modeling? 12) What do Mom and Dad think of what you do? 13) Is there any question I should have asked you / is there anything you were expecting me to ask?

your author, lacking focus

The preceding info is from a mix of college and real world experience. The fundamentals of interviewing are from attaining a Mass Comm./Broadcasting degree. That wasn't cheap, but hey, the data from when I posted this on my old site suggests info like this is helpful. Good luck interviewing!


Written by Justin Kilmer

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