February 10, 2015

5 Tips for Getting People to Speak Comfortably on Camera

Whether it’s privately funded or publicly supported, any preservation project can benefit from more community backing. And one of the best ways to get your message out there is to create and share video interviews with community members who already support your goals.

Making sure that your interview subjects can speak comfortably on camera is essential to getting useable footage, but it’s not always so simple. Even the most thoughtful, articulate people can clam up with when a camera is pointed in their face.

Here are five tips that will help your subjects relax and help you produce a valuable digital asset.

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An interview being conducted at the announcement of Santa Fe, New Mexico's Palace of the Governors as a new National Treasure in February.

Be Comfortable Yourself

Whether you’re interviewing Tom Hanks, a stranger on the street, or your very own aunt, your subject will take their cues from you. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable they will be. Smile, make eye contact, speak slowly, and do your best to relax. Your subject will usually mirror your behavior.

Explain Your Purpose

The more your subjects understands about what’s going on, the more at ease they will be. Reiterate the purpose of your interview and how long it will last. Explaining how the footage will be edited and where, when, and how it will be used will also help them feel more confident in expressing their opinion.

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Members of the Sons of the American Revolution being interviewed by the National Trust's Tom Wall

List Your Questions and Expectations

Before you start recording, outline your questions to your subject. When a subject knows what’s coming, he or she is much more likely to provide better answers and do so more smoothly.

Likewise, when a subject knows what the expectations are for their responses -- for example, “In two sentences, tell me why you love Music Row” -- they’re less likely to be nervous about meeting them. Making your expectations known can also keep subjects from rambling.

Don’t Apply Pressure

Explain to your subject that your interview isn’t live, so they should feel free to pause and consider the question and restart if they need to. Sometimes it will take people a few extra tries to get things just right, but once they know they have the option for a couple takes, the pressure seems to melt away.

Frame your interaction as simply a conversation between two friends. Tell your subjects to ignore the camera and focus on you. Usually, once people are occupied with constructing an answer, they’ll forget they’re being recorded and will begin to respond naturally.

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Start an interview by asking for someone's name and their affiliation with your project.

Build Their Confidence

It’s a good idea to start with some easy questions to help your subject build momentum. You’ll need to know their name and other basic information no matter what. Starting with those questions not only helps them build confidence, but ensures you don’t forget to ask for essential information.

Taken together, these five tips can help even the most nervous subjects appear more comfortable and confident on camera, and lend authenticity and depth to your video.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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