Column: Testimonials: How to Get Great Interviews Without Bending the Rules

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Ever flip the channels, catch a few infomercials, and wonder why some testimonials are so genuine and believable while others seem so canned and fake? I assure you nine out of 10 times the fault lies with the interviewer and not the testimonial.

Testimonials, by their very nature, should come across as genuine and real. Most people know this, of course. The key then becomes how we accomplish this.

Let's start out with a list of what not to do:

  1. Do not go into an interview with an absolute pre-set idea of where you want the interview to go. It's great to have a cheat sheet with some notes and bullet points you'd like to hit, but the best interviews will almost always be the ones where you establish natural conversation and rarely need to look down at your notes.
  2. Do not bring testimonials on set only to sit there for 30 minutes while final lighting preparations are being worked out. How comfortable and relaxed would you be sitting under a bunch of lights and surrounded by big equipment while an entire crew of people hovers all around you making adjustments to the set? This is the most common way to inadvertently turn a hot interviewee cold and stiff.
  3. Do not repeat the same question 10 times in a row hoping to get the exact answer you may be looking for. It's okay to want to hear something a certain way, but ask a question once or twice and move on to something else. You can always come back later and ask the same question again, but trying to force a question over and over again for a specific desired response will make your testimonial uncomfortable and stiff.
  4. Do not allow extra crew members, friends of the testimonial, or anyone else in the room or place of interview unless it is absolutely critical to the shoot. The more people you have "lingering" around while you shoot the interview, the more stiff and unnatural it will be. I've been amazed to see sets where countless people have swarmed around an interview to "watch," only to see a very uncomfortable testimonial then give a poor interview. And who could blame them?
  5. Do not treat your testimonials like paid actors. They are not. Assume most have never been on a set before. Take a minute to explain what that big green screen behind them is so they don't feel like they're on the set for the next Incredible Hulk movie. You'd be surprised how much better your interviews can be when you make the slightest extra effort to make your testimonials comfortable in their surroundings.

Now, for the do's:

  1. Do sit as close as possible to the person you are interviewing. Sometimes lighting, camera angles and other factors create an environment where it's tough for you to sit close to the testimonial. Find a way! Even if it means sacrificing on lighting. Nobody gives a good natural interview when they are sitting 10 yards away from the person asking the questions.
  2. Do get to know the person you are interviewing. I recently interviewed a young woman who was rather stiff and uncomfortable out of the gate. By making personal and casual conversation, I learned that her fiancé and I were actually old friends from college. Needless to say, she quickly lit up, gave a great interview, and was even invited back to our roundtable.
  3. Do follow the 20/80 rule. Talk for no more than 20 percent of the interview and listen for the other 80 percent. If you ask good questions and have strong listening skills, this will be no problem. Remember, the point of the interview is to get sound bites from the testimonial, not yourself.
  4. Do know when to shut up. The best sound bites occur when least expected. If a testimonial is telling a story, let them tell it. That's what editing is all about. I've listened to testimonials ramble endlessly for 5 minutes without coming up for air, but somewhere, hidden deep within those 5 minutes of endless ramble, are often 3 or 4 seconds of pure magic that can literally make a show succeed.
  5. Do be aware of your energy. We all get tired after eight or nine interviews in a row, but I guarantee you, the second your energy drops, so does your testimonial's. If you want upbeat, energetic testimonials who come across excited, you better be the Energizer bunny yourself who is pumped up and leading the charge. On the same note, if you're looking for a more emotional interview, you need to equally be aware of how to set the mood and scene.

Great testimonials don't just happen. They don't just fall off trees or walk in off the street. The relationships have to be cultivated and nurtured. A truly good interview is not just based on who is answering the questions, but on who is asking them.

Drew Plotkin is a partner and the creative director for Launch DRTV, Los Angeles. Reach him at drew@launchdrtv.com

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