top of page

Tips for Conducting a Documentary / Reality TV Interview (2024 update)

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.

The small end of the funnel doesn’t exactly have to consist of just the “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 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) - "How is your day?" "How was your flight?" “Where are you from originally?”

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 of pronouncing 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?

Even more info (the 2024 update):

A coworker recently recommended I check out the Lex Fridman podcast. He warned it's "long-form", and boy is it ever! The shortest interview is about an hour, and some extend to 4, 5 hours. The point is, the one I've listened to so far is with the biographer, Walter Isaacson. If you watch PBS, you might know him from being an interviewer on "Amanpour and Company". In the Lex Fridman podcast, a lot touches on Isaacson's most recent biography, that was written while he was shadowing Elon Musk.

What made me think of this post started with Isaacson saying "People want to talk if you're willing to just listen." From there, the conversation segued into talking about the importance of respecting the silence in an interview. Isaacson says "You can never go wrong by staying silent, if there's nothing you have to say....Sometimes if they haven’t given you enough, instead of following up, I’ll just nod and keep waiting." I know I've seen this before, in primetime TV interviews: the interviewer will give a nod to acknowledge the end of an answer, then, in the following silence, give a little head tilt while continuing to look at the subject, as if to subtly say "and?"

Other interview tips mentioned by Issacson: "Don't ask complex questions", "Don't interject", and people can tell if you're playing games, trying to catch someone in a "gotcha" moment of if the questions are being asked because you're genuinely curious.

Good stuff from that podcast interview!

your author, lacking focus
Your author, in a rare moment of lacking focus

Aside from the 2024 update, the preceding info is from a mix of real world experience and college - I spent some time working in TV news, and my degree is in Mass Comm/Broadcasting. That wasn't cheap, but hey, it's helpful, and people are still looking for this info 12 years after originally posting it. Good luck interviewing!


Written by Justin Kilmer

All images and media on this site are © by Justin Kilmer, unless otherwise noted.

If this page has helped save you time or money, consider helping us grow this site by donating any amount via the Paypal button:

If you would rather make a purchase, check out our photo prints at Fine Art America.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page