Life in the Box: How To Interview


I’m going to be talking with some high school students about television and the interviewing process. Not only will I show them a basic two-light setup and promise that using a tripod for the videography will help immensely, but I will also be discussing how to capture a good story.

These high school students may never be news broadcasters, but they might want to interview people over the course of their lives, whether they want to capture their own stories (self-interview), examine their friends’ accomplishments, or learn about an admired family member.

And, other than having a good microphone and nice framing of the visuals, there needs to be some thought about what makes a good story. Even if we believe that everyone on the planet has a story to tell, how do you get them to tell it for television?

Start by thinking of their stories like a newspaper editors would, with priorities being–timeliness, magnitude, rarity, prominence, proximity and historical significance.

In the case of a family biography, questions could include: what do they think were the biggest events, most meaningful moments, and rare happenings in their lives?  What historical events did they live through, when were they at the right place at the right time, and did they ever meet someone famous? What were some of the most interesting conflicts in their lives? How does that affect them now?

It’s really easy to ask too many questions and extend an interview for hours. However, that’s tiring, and boring to watch. It’s better to narrow the list down and prioritize.

Barbara Walters, a long-time television interviewer, said famously that she never asked a question she didn’t know the answer to. It’s not always a good idea to “pre-interview” someone too close to the actual interview, because they’ll lose spontaneity.  But if you know what stories you want to record, you can cut your post-interview editing down significantly, so take some time with your participant a few days before, even over the phone or by email or texting.   

Remember that your job is to get them to tell a story, and less about what question you asked, or how you asked it. I tend to cut my questions out completely from the final product. I also try to stay silent while they’re talking, which isn’t always easy.

There are other qualities in news writing that also apply to the interview. Find out the “who, what, when, where, and why,” plus sometimes the “how.” If you know all this, you might want to write it up as a quick narration, rather than ask them to relate it all on camera. Get short answers, then expand with details if something needs clarification.

One of the things that makes a video enthralling is: emotion. Don’t forget to ask about feelings. How did the events in their story make them feel? Did the event change them or others? Was that change permanent? Do they have regrets?  Would they do it again if they were in similar circumstances?

You need to be objective, as an interviewer, but the person you’re interviewing can be very subjective. Have them tell their own point of view. After they’ve shared, it sometimes feels right for you to share your subjective point of view with them – sometimes not. Sometimes you might want to ask an uncomfortable question, and a way to do that is to play “devil’s advocate.”

After you get the basics, the “why” can often open up people to introspection. Why was this time important to them? What motivated them to create their art piece or write their book? Did they have a stroke of insight? Was it something they pondered long and hard before choosing or doing?

When you get right down to it, the “why” is the crux of your interview. Once we know why a person accomplished something, we have in our hands the reason this story is of interest. We can finally answer our own question: “Why am I asking this person about their story?”

We want to know what makes people tick. And hearing them describe what’s in their heart of hearts helps us dance to our own inner beat.


Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

The Five Rules of Journalism adapted from The Elements of News Writing by James W. Kershner

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