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How to get better answers to your interview questions

Story & Heart
September 16, 2015 by Story & Heart PRO

Interviews often serve as the backbone for a wide array of films, from client work to weddings to documentaries. The reason for this is simple: they’re a great way to create a powerful connection between your characters and your audience. 

But what happens when you encounter an interviewee who isn’t giving the best of responses and, even worse, their words absolutely need to be in the final film?

Even in this seemingly hopeless scenario, there is a way to turn the situation around and walk away with a great interview that will build that ever-so-important connection with your audience. 

Humans are naturally storytellers — it’s in our DNA, after all. Some people just need a little extra help to bring out their natural storytelling abilities. This is where you, the filmmaker, get to save the day. Which brings us to our one amazing tip for better interview answers (well, two, since there is a bonus tip below):

To get better interview answers, frame your questions so that the responses will be in the form of a story.


Imagine you’re interviewing a couple for their wedding film, and you’re building the story of how they met. Instead of asking, “How did you meet?” try, “Set the scene for how you met. What events happened that day?” Alternatively, you could ask, “Tell me about the day when you two met and the moments you remember most vividly.” These new ways of asking will yield a much more powerful response than the simple, “How did you meet?”

These questions encourage your interviewee to dig deeper and share story-based answers. Generally, interview responses are lackluster because they’re not story-based. It could be that the answers are short, boring, predictable, etc. In the end, they’re going to do the exact opposite of what a powerful interview should. They’re not going to create a powerful connection with your audience. Remember, all great stories follow the same basic story structure.

Pixar, a studio well-versed in telling amazing stories (and making everyone cry in the process), uses this story structure:

Once upon a time ________________________.

Every day, ________________________.

But, one day ________________________.

Because of that, ________________________.

Because of that, ________________________.

Because of that, ________________________.

Until finally, ________________________.

And ever since then________________________.

In the case of “Set the scene for how you met. What events happened that day?”, you’re filling in the “But, one day__________” part of your story. It’s likely that even a person who isn’t familiar with the couple would still find the story interesting if it’s framed in this way.

But don’t just call it quits there. If a part of the story you’re hoping to capture isn’t present in the interviewee’s initial response, keep an ear out for opportunities to introduce all of the missing elements through follow-up questions.

By reframing your questions into a structure that will lend itself to a story-based answer, you’re setting yourself up for success.

Let’s go back to our wedding couple. You’ve been asking deep questions and they’ve shared some great answers. But they’ve still only covered a few of the elements of a great story. Perhaps the “Because of that, __________” section is missing, which might mean you’re missing the resolution to a challenge they had to overcome as a couple and the important things they learned in the face of that hardship. This is where you get to come in and bring out the story’s full emotional weight.

For example, if you’re creating a Kickstarter campaign video for the next big product, and you’re looking to find out how the idea originated, avoid asking, “Where did the idea come from?” Instead, try saying, “Go back to the very beginning of this journey. Set the scene for how the idea for this product first came to be.” Then perhaps ask a follow-up question related to the challenges they faced in bringing their idea to life. “You were at a crossroads with this particular challenge. What events or conversations pushed you over the edge to keep moving forward?”

Look for opportunities through your follow-up questions and how you frame them to bring the full story out of your interviewees. The result will be a complete story that will connect the audience with your subjects.

Regardless of how skilled of a storyteller your interviewee was when they first sat down in the interview chair, by framing your questions to encourage story-based responses, you will walk away with a great interview. While this does take some quick thinking on your feet, and thus practice to truly perfect the technique, it makes a world of a difference in the responses you’ll capture. 

If you’ve successfully guided the interviewee, and now you’re laden with amazing story-filled answers, you may find yourself with a new problem: the answers are too long. Not good!

That’s okay. To help refocus your interviewee and the stories they’ve shared, ask them to summarize their story. For example, “If you were to sum up that story in a single sentence, what would it be?” You still walk away with your initial lengthy response, but now you’ll also have a highly condensed and sound-bite worthy version as well. Win win! 

Now that you have some tools for framing stellar interview questions, you can read up on our advice for shooting interviews, and become a well-rounded interviewing force!

26 Comments

Meghan Oretsky Staff

This is super great. Very helpful tips! Thanks a lot for this, Story & Heart

MARKiTYOU

Totally incredible. Almost unbelievable. Thanks for sharing...KLS @ MARKiTYOU

Story & Heart PRO

Anytime KLS. Definitely let us know if these tips help you out in your next interview.

Yoho Media PRO

Great article; interviews are so important. Personally I think it often helps to catch your interviewee off guard. Often the best moments in an interview are when you can see someone thinking as they speak, so that they (and the audience) aren't quite sure where they are going.

Story & Heart PRO

Great tip! A good interview is just a good conversation—that happens to be recorded. And in that way, you may not be 100% sure what's going to be said next in a conversation, but if it's a good one you're going to be connected enough to want to hear what's coming. Thanks for sharing!

iFEEL Education

The big product should be in such way that, people will find the easiest way to implement

Black Label Films PRO

Great tip, especially given how key interviews are and how challenging they can be to pull the content you're looking for.

Bumper2BumperTV PRO

I try to have a conversation not an interrogation with my subjects. Often when I hear something that makes me react with a mental "say what?" I follow that thread of the conversation before trying to go back to the primary subject. Often the color of a story really comes out. While working on a documentary about civil rights activists in Georgia I asked the wife of a leading figure to recount their first meeting. In a separate interview I asked the same question of her spouse. The response literally edited themselves together.

Story & Heart PRO

Spot on advice! A great interview is really just a natural conversation that happens to be recorded.

sausdnews PRO

Thanks!! I do mini-docs and news packages at a large urban school district cable TV station in Orange County, CA, and this offers some great tools for illiciting better responses from interview subjects. Any particular tips for working with children? (Especially English learners?) They are super shy and I sometimes have trouble getting them to speak about their stories, and that goes for their parents as well. I bring along an interpreter with me, but I still have to come up with good questions.

JJ Harris Plus

So good. Thank you, definitely going to be putting this to work on a new contract.

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