Become a stronger interviewer with valuable tips from filmmaker Jeremy Higham.
Qualified interviews are a sophisticated craft. Jeremy Higham has been described as a connoisseur of this subject. For the past thirty-three years, he has refined his interview technique and cut his teeth on documentaries before starting his own production company. I met him recently to discuss his expertise.
Here are some excerpts from our chat and some of my takeaways.
Throw yourself down
PremiumBeat: When was your first interview?
Jeremy Higham: One of the first I can remember was when I was twenty-three. I was overwhelmed and interviewed the head of healthcare in Belfast. I was so incredibly nervous, but still threw myself into it. He was actually interested in my questions, which amazed me.
Bring away: As with many activities, you often have to plunge to develop your skills as an interviewer. Even the grown-ups felt uncomfortable when they started.
Be gentle and kind
PB: How did you progress as an interviewer?
JH: In the early days of my career, my questioning style was actually quite manipulative. The television company I worked for put pressure on us to deliver strong content. At the time, I was absolutely convinced that I had to manipulate the respondent slightly to get good material out of them. I went on a journey to discover that meekness is the key. Being kind to someone enables him to open up. If you treat the person you are speaking to well, you will get what you need for your video – without compromising your integrity.
When I was 35 I had a very intense spiritual awakening that gave me a whole new perspective on human nature. This completely revolutionized the way I interviewed people. My success is due to the introduction of a new belief system and sense of identity. I think every single person I am presented with is absolutely unique. They have had difficulties that I do not have and they can see aspects of life that I cannot see. That fascinates me, that's why people open up to me!
Bring away: It is important not to be tempted to be intrusive on your interview topic. Even if you get the answers you're looking for under pressure, it can harm your reputation. To quote Jeremy, it also does mankind a bad service. In addition, it is worth thinking about your core values and belief system as this has a profound impact on how you connect with those you are filming. You can't just summon fantastic interview skills if you don't really care about people on a deep level.
Make sure you adjust accordingly
PB: Are there classic mistakes others have made in this area?
JH: I remember being interviewed on the radio about a documentary I had made. This well-known interviewer I spoke to made a textbook mistake. At the end of each answer, she didn't base her next question on what I just said, she didn't even seem to be listening. She seemed more focused on just answering the questions someone else had asked her. Within three or four minutes my confidence to speak was exhausted. Fully focusing on the respondent's answers is such an important part of the process.
Bring away: Always pay close attention to what is said and adapt your questions to the previous answers. If you seem disinterested, don’t capture the high quality content you’re looking for.
Remove the safety net for an exciting authenticity
PB: Do you prepare questions before a shoot?
JH: I never take prepared questions with me. I don't even allow respondents to take notes. As long as you don't remove the safety net, you will never delight the audience. Responses without notes are vulnerable and the audience desperately wants to identify this vulnerability. Authenticity is everything to me. I want to develop a new understanding that I won't do when I read questions from a list.
Bring away: This proposal is challenging. We all fear this uncomfortable silence that arises when people try to find answers and questions on the spot. If you feel brave, try not to take notes to get more authentic content. If you are not there yet, you can remember some security questions and at the same time do most of the interview without prompting.
Maintain a relaxed environment
PB: How do you help people relax by chatting with them on camera?
JH: I think people are tense because they think you will treat them in a certain way. I try not to be too professional with them. When I smoked, I lit up at the beginning of an interview. As a result, every professional facade disintegrated and we had a much more relaxed conversation.
Bring away: It is always helpful to be aware of the atmosphere you create in the interview. Think about your posture and body language. You cannot relax when you are tense. Think of the set. Are the chairs comfortable? Is there a small table nearby where your subject can put a glass of water? What is the lighting like? What is the temperature? You can control all of these variables.
Don't stop until everything is said
PB: Do you have any other wisdom to share on the subject?
JH: I called one of my favorite techniques "belching the baby". When you burp a baby, the last burp is the hardest to get out. However, if the baby doesn't get them out, they feel dissatisfied.
Similarly, a respondent very often has something fascinating to talk about that can remain unspoken if not asked to do so. I'll calmly say, "We'll turn the camera off soon. Is there anything you will regret later if you don't talk about it now? Let us pause for a moment."
This moment becomes a pregnant break. If they say they have nothing more to add, I still encourage them to stop for a second. All too often they chirp with something absolutely convincing.
Bring away: Don't be tempted to get things done too quickly. In this context, patience definitely pays off. Try this technique, you will probably be surprised by the results.
Here are some other helpful resources that examine the pros and cons of interviewing:
Cover image courtesy of Jeremy Higham's Instagram via wearehighamco.