Eight ideas to help get the most out of a man-on-the-street interview

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Unscripted, authentic, natural, non-corporate – these are all terms used to describe a style of video that has become very popular. I imagine corporate/slick will expereince a rebirth in a few years – everything that is old is new, but for now real/authentic is de rigeur.

There are many ways that man-on-the-street video interviews are being used today: Guerrilla marketing, social marketing, public relations, promotional video, and market testing/sampling are all examples. Whatever the reason, here are eight ideas to help you get the most out of your effort:

1. Bring a sound guy (engineer). I see people holding cameras with little shotgun mikes mounted to the camera and wonder what type of sound quality they are getting. There is far too much ambient noise in an urban setting to get good clean sound from your interviewee. It’s too difficult for your cameraman to concentrate on the video portion of the shoot and the audio at the same time. Even if he notices a problem there is probably nothing he can do about it – he can’t move closer with the camera to get better sound. One option is getting the interviewee to hold a microphone – which works well but doesn’t look great  on camera. Another solution, if you have the time is to hook your interviewee up with a lavalier mike (the little microphone you click on to your shirt) – either wirelessly or with a wire, but that becomes too cumbersome if you are interviewing more than a few  people.

2. Getting people to go on camera – Suggestion #1: Use a woman to ask for on-camera volunteers. From experience I have the most luck when I work with a personable, professional women who is doing the interviewee rustling. It’s much easier for a woman to get a woman, or man, or family… or just about anyone on camera than it is for a man. Most people are terrified of being on camera. If you are aggressive, intimidating or overtly solicitous you’ll frighten people away.

3. Getting people to go on camera – Suggestion #2: Ask them to go in a group. People are much less intimidated by a camera if they are surrounded by friends, or strangers for that matter. Peer pressure will ensure that everyone eventually trundles up to the camera even if they don’t think they want to talk.

4. Have fun. Yep, this sounds trite but it’s really important. You’ll get a lot more out of people if you use a little humour to make them comfortable on camera and you will be much more likely to get onlookers to volunteer to go on camera if it looks like the process is fun. Even if the subject matter is serious it can still help to try to get people comfortable on camera before you start shooting.

5. Do a dry run. Tell the person that the camera isn’t rolling and get them to think through their answers. People are more comfortable if they can work through their answers first and it also give you a chance to coach them. An option is to keep the camera rolling even during the ‘dry run’. I’m always surprised when I get a great comment or reponse from an interviewee either just before or just after an interview when the camera isn’t rolling. Keep it rolling.

6. Play the odds. You want a good answer – you need to ask 10 questions. You want one good interviewee – you need to get 10 people in front of the camera. It’s a numbers game. Photographers shoot 10 shots to get one good one. The odds are much the same for man-on-the-street interviews. The more time you spend the greater the chance you have of getting that perfect interviewee. Higher numbers also help you hedge your bets during edit when you decide to change your approach.

7. Coach / Cajole / Convince. (‘The three C’s’ of the man-in-the-street interview.) Sure the purists will blanch at the  thought of “planned spontaneity” but it may save your shoot. If you know someone who is articulate and has something to say about whatever you happen to be filming- give them a call and have them wander by your shoot. If you are not getting what you want out of an interviewee be direct. I’m always surprised when someone says ‘oh that’s what you were looking for, why didn’t you just tell me’.  Of course at some point if the interviewee turns into an actor then you’ve probably lost your shot at authenticity.

8. Plan. This one sounds like motherhood too but it’s probably the most important. You have to know what outcomes you want before you start your interview. If you don’t know exactly what you are looking for then you shouldn’t be surprised when the stuff you get back is not usable. If you ask vague questions you will get vague answers.

9. Bonus idea– Wear pajamas under your clothes when shooting outside in the winter. {I’m not smoking in the above photo}

{Special nod to Stephen Fenn at Fenn Photography who took the above photo and helped out with the photographic requirements of this project)

One thought on “Eight ideas to help get the most out of a man-on-the-street interview

  1. Thank you for posting this blog; your tips are very helpful. In a month, I will be going to Austin, Texas to do man on the street interviews. But the thing is that I will not have the opportunity to have any other “industry” people with me because we are flying from out of state. So we will only have an interviewer and myself, as the sound and camera man.

    I plan to use a microphone to capture the sound along with a shotgun mic for backup. I have done research on the best ENG microphones and the one that I purchased was the industry standard, so I do not think that the microphone would look that bad on camera.

    Like I said before, our crew is limited, but the tip for having a woman ask for camera volunteers is a great idea. Definitely will make sure I use that tip in the future. But for this shoot, using a little humor would be the best idea because we want people that know that we are not uptight and stuckup.

    I have used the dry run technique plenty of times for behind the scenes footage, but I never thought about using it for this project. I’m shooting on a Canon 6D and I purchased a 128GB card, so I think that I would have enough room to just keep the camera rolling.

    My goal is to interview as many people as I can. As I am writing this post, I do not have a set number in mind, but I know it will be a high number. I have three days of shooting time, (the third day is a makeup day if I need more footage) so if I record 50 people a day, I should have all the footage I need. My goal is to get 7 good interviews. I am in the process of writing a script for how thing should go and I am actually doing a dry run of the recording in my hometown before I head to Texas.

    Thank you again for this post.

    -MP

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