A few weeks ago we were asked to talk with a group of high school students here in Denver about the process and experience of interviewing people.
The presentation was related to the final assignment for the unit the students were working on. They were to pick a topic related to some pretty heavy stuff they were studying: US History through ethnic conflict with a focus on four major conflicts: political ideology, the Middle East, immigration and institutionalized racism. They were then to find someone related to that topic and interview them. No small task given only a few weeks to conceptualize and complete!
During the presentation we talked about what makes a successful interview based on our experiences while making a documentary and Polly’s background in print/web journalism. We started with the need to do research on both the topic and the interview subject. We emphasized that the interviewer needs to have enough command of the topic to ask intelligent questions during the interview and know enough about the interviewee to ask questions they would know the answers to.
We also stressed that every interaction leading up to, including the interview, and afterwards are opportunities to develop rapport and trust with the subject. And finally, we talked about strategies for helping the students and the interview subjects feel at ease during the interview. Things like being prepared, breathing exercises, smiling, asking simple questions first before moving into harder questions.
One student wanted to use the topic of the reaction to police brutality by professional athletes. He had thought of reaching out to some big name athletes but he said he didn’t think it was worth it because “they will never want to talk to me.” We advised him that you never know what someone will say unless you ask. Someone very unexpected might be happy to speak with you.
Days later we experienced this ourselves.
During the process of making our documentary Seeking Solutions: Immigration, we have needed to reach out to experts we do not know personally. So basically we are cold calling and asking for up to an hour of people’s time.
So far we have found that about 40% of the people we reach out to never reply to our requests. The next 15% reply with either a “no” or saying that the next time they are available is so far in the future that it wasn’t feasible for us given our travel plans. The last 35% of potential subjects say “yes”. So the lesson learned is that you need to ask at least twice as many people to appear on camera as you need. But also we had no idea who would say “yes.”
Following the advice we gave to the students, we reached out to four subjects recently, at least two of whom we considered long shots that would not agree to interviews. True to the statistics above, two have not replied, one we are still conversing with, and the fourth, who we figured was the longest shot, wrote back within 10 minutes of our initial email and within 30 minutes we had a date, time and location set for the following week.
The date was yesterday when we had a fantastic interview with the former Governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm. He has written several books and articles, and been interviewed countless time by local and national journalists on a wide range of subjects including immigration. We were grateful that he took time out of his life to speak with us.
We felt the interview helped us live up to our goal to find people with a range of viewpoints. The interview touched on many subjects we had spoken to others about but he offered a fresh twist and perspective, and brought several new angles to the discussion. Overall, this interview, like the others we have conducted, demonstrated just how complex this issue of immigration, with so many variables that need to be balanced.
We are grateful to Gov. Lamm and everyone else who has trusted us to present their point of view in the documentary.