How to talk to strangers: 5 tips on nailing impromptu, in-the-field interviews
As a doc maker, a lot of the interviews I do are with people I've already talked to before I show up, mic in hand.
In preparation for an in-person interview, I've usually researched the person ahead of time, pre-interviewed them by phone and thought carefully about what questions I'll ask and how. But there's another kind of interview I do that doesn't involve any of these things: on-the-fly interviews in the field with strangers (aka, basically winging it).
When I'm reporting a doc, I go where the story is, which means I often encounter people along the way who I'm meeting for the first time, on tape. Sometimes, those unplanned conversations turn into my best, liveliest pieces of tape (if also sometimes a little humbling or downright cringe-inducing, since I usually have to also be willing to include some of my own off the cuff questions and reactions in the final product).
While producing a documentary for Dispatches in 2011 about fermented herring, a putrid-smelling national delicacy in Sweden that was in danger of being banned by the EU for dioxin contamination, some of my favourite moments happened with strangers I met along the road in a tiny fishing village on my way to try the dish for the first time.
Even though I know it almost always pays off, I still feel my stomach drop a little whenever I have to approach strangers out in the world. Veteran CBC producer and host Sook-Yin Lee says it's perfectly normal to have an aversion to "streeter"-style interviews "because it is quite a vulnerable experience" to put yourself out there, hoping someone will talk to you when you approach them and put a mic in their face. "But I'm constantly amazed at what people will tell me," says Lee.
1. Start with a softball
The quickest way to make someone clam up is to ask them a deep, personal question right out of the gate. Same goes for asking people to give a fully formed opinion about something as you might do in an interview with an expert.
Wells likes to takes some time to chit-chat a little and establish a connection and rapport with someone she wants to interview. It's about "relating to the person as a human being," she says.
When she approaches people on the street, Wiens makes sure to have a simple question in mind — often one with an easy "yes" or "no" answer. "I like to make sure it's something the person can answer," says Wiens, "because then once they answer that first question, all of a sudden they're having a conversation with you."
In this montage Wiens created for CBC Toronto's Metro Morning, listen to how she uses simple, conversational questions to get teens talking about smoking:
2. Keep a low profile
"Don't go in your best clothes," says The Sunday Edition documentary producer Karin Wells, who likes to blend in as much as possible when she's in the field. She also likes to keep her equipment minimal: she doesn't bring a notebook when recording and she … wait for it … doesn't wear headphones! Metro Morning documentary producer Mary Wiens also breaks the "always wear headphones" rule. "Technical people will say to always have headphones on," says Wiens, "but I just felt like it was too many cords and straps, and it made my life so much easier when I got rid of them."
Meanwhile, Sleepover host Sook-Yin Lee wears a pair of over-the-ear headphones to monitor as she records, but also uses a beat-up 40-year old mic with a wind sock held on by a hair band, so there's no danger of potential interviewees being scared off by her fancy high-tech equipment.
3. Use "streeters" to set a scene
In a documentary, "streeter"-style interviews with people you meet out in the world have a different purpose than the ones news reporters might do to get people's opinion on the news of the day. Wells says she often includes little scenes with people she's never met before, but she uses these moments more to help set the scene than to delve deep into the person's backstory or innermost thoughts and feelings.
For example, in this clip from her documentary for The Sunday Edition, it didn't matter so much what exactly the men said at the beginning of the clip. "I just wanted them to sound like funeral guys, who will tell me it's a rainy day," says Wells.
Wiens likes to try and get mini-stories from the people she meets out in the world. "To go out on the street with a mic and not get a little personal story is missing what a streeter can bring," says Wiens. "Opinions are a dime a dozen, but stories aren't so cheap."
4. Get moving
One of the best ways to get good tape with strangers is to get them to do something more active than just standing there and answering questions. If you're outside or in an interesting place, use that space!
"One thing that can help bring fresh energy into your tape is literally walking," says Wiens."Then you start to get a sense of movement in the piece."
Lee is a master at coaxing strangers out of their comfort zone. "I like to engender a sense of play," she says. In this segment for Definitely Not the Opera, she managed to convince strangers to harmonize with her in a parking garage:
5. Shake it off
As Lee demonstrates at the beginning of her singing montage above, the most important thing to remember when trying to talk to strangers is that lots of people just won't want to talk to you. And that's fine! The worst thing you can do is get so disheartened that your mood drops, you stop smiling, and you lose your natural curiosity. "When people say no, just say thank you very much and move on," says Lee.
This article is based on The Doc Project original video: Doc Drop-In #6 - Q&A (How to Talk to Strangers)
About the author
While she was there, her documentary about a woman from Cote d'Ivoire who was reunited with her children after twelve years in immigration limbo won the RTNDA Adrienne Clarkson Award for Diversity Reporting. She also writes for a number of print and online publications and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award.