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Lights, Camera, Talk!

Consider this something of an aside to the "basic futurism" series over at Fast Company.

As video becomes an increasingly important part of how organizations construct their internal and external narratives, those of us who work in the broad field of consulting will frequently find ourselves plopped down in front of a camera. One-on-one interviews have aspects of both formal presentations and casual conversations, but a few twisty elements all their own.

Much to my surprise, I've done quite a few on-camera, one-on-one interviews over the past few years. It's not something I sought out, but is very much a growing part of what consultants, writers, or other knowledge workers should expect as part of their jobs.

Here are some hard-learned tips for the novice interviewee, based on my own experiences -- I've broken all of these rules at one point or another, and learned quickly why they are worth following.

  • How to Look: Solid, muted colors and grays work best. Black clothing is generally not recommended, and white clothing is even worse. Stripes are right out. A suit jacket is usually a good addition, especially if it's not the same color as the shirt. When possible, tug the back of the jacket down and sit on it -- it helps to keep the collar from bunching up as you move.

    You're also much better off wearing something that buttons down the front, so that a small microphone can be attached to the placket and the wire dropped down inside your shirt and into a transmitter.

    In addition, if you know that you're prone to shiny skin under bright lights (foreheads in particular are awful for this), see if you can get a light coating of pancake makeup applied. For those of us who don't wear makeup regularly, it can feel a bit odd at first, but makes a big difference in how you look.

  • How to Act: Ask the camera operator ahead of time what kind of framing they're giving you -- a close-up of your face, a full-torso, chest-up, etc.. That will help you to know just how much you can move around. If you -- like me -- tend to talk with your hands, you'll want to warn them as they set up the framing. You'll also want to be conscious of it during the conversation; it can look really weird for bits and pieces of your hand or arm to suddenly pop into and out of frame.

    Nine times out of ten, you'll be asked to not look at the camera, but instead to look at the interviewer seated near the camera (I once had an interview where the actual interview took place over the phone, so I had to look at an empty spot near the camera the whole time). The challenge will be to avoid glancing over at the camera while you speak. If you're in the habit of looking around the room while you talk, to make eye contact with the audience, you'll have to train yourself to avoid that when doing on-camera interviews.

  • How to Speak: I won't tell you to go slow or fast -- that will depend on your own style. But there are three tricks to keep in mind that will help you to make sure that what you're saying is coherent and clear.

    When possible, speak in short sentences. Most video interviews get edited pretty heavily, so speaking in brief, pithy sentences makes the editor's job easier, and you're more likely to come out sounding like you know what you're talking about.

    Put the question into the answer. In nearly every interview, the questions asked by the interviewer get cut out. It's up to you, then, to weave the question you've been asked into the structure of the answer, so that your quote can stand alone. If you're asked, for example, how the dinosaurs died out, "Current science says an asteroid impact" is less useful for an editor than "Currently, the most popular scientific theory says that the dinosaurs were killed off by an asteroid impact."

    Don't be afraid to stop and start over. Unless your interview is being shown live, or completely uncut, you should feel free to stop in the middle of a convoluted or mangled phrase, pause for a beat, then restart, preferably at the beginning of your answer or a self-contained part of your answer. This also applies if you have a sudden burst of background noise, a sneeze, or any other brief interruption. You and the editor are both interested in you coming across as knowledgeable and clear.

This isn't a complete list, but these are the items that stood out in my mind when thinking over my last set of interviews. Please feel free to speak up in the comments if you have other tips to add.


They are great tips even for me as a novice interviewer (using video). Have you ever taken the role as an interviewer? Any tips you have in mind?

Very helpful, thanks. We use video more and more in our studio which helps dispell the illusion that we're just the objects of the camera instead of a full participant.

Possible additions to your list:

  • Try to avoid saying "um" and "ah" if possible. For one thing, you sound smarter. And editors may not have time to cut these sounds out if you're live, or their deadline's tight, or if there's nothing to cut away to (merely cutting out the sound of "uh" while the video track plays your talking head makes for weird-looking video).
  • Avoid touching your face, scratching yourself (even if your itch is in some uncontroversial place like the back of your neck). Not only does it mess with your audio and maybe your mic or makeup, it looks weird and twitchy on video.
  • Avoid the urge to put your hands in your pockets. If the only way you can feel relaxed is when your hands are doing something, hold a pen or pencil in one hand. It works, and it looks ok.

Advice for novice interviewer? My two favorites: (1) "What did you have for breakfast?" as a warm-up question (you can frame up and set audio levels during answer); and (2) Never ever turn off that recorder unless your subject requests this by going off the record, or your subject has exited the room. I've lost count of the many usable tidbits that came to light in the last few minutes of an interview that was just "finished," and the recording gear had been powered down. If there's any doubt about whether you should be allowed to use that after-the-interview footage, kindly ask your subject and explain why.

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