By Jeffrey Hedquist
Some of the most effective commercials ever created have not been written by copywriters, but by regular folks--employees, customers, people on the street. They will say things that no copywriter could or probably ever should write. How can you make your interviews with them be more productive?
Dress appropriately. If you're interviewing corporate officers, dress more formally. For people on the street, dress more casually. If you're interviewing people in a mall, store, or an office setting, then dress somewhere in between. For men, this would probably be a sport jacket, trousers, and a tie. The key thing to remember is to make the interviewee comfortable.
Let's assume it's just you alone, without an engineer to assist. A small, portable, digital recorder is best, however a good quality cassette machine can work almost as well. The microphone should be hand-held, not too large. Most people are not comfortable with a large mic thrust in their face. An ideal microphone would be a stereo mic that picks up your questions on one channel and their answers on the other, eliminating the need to move the microphone back and forth as much between you and your interviewee.
Spend some time capturing a few minutes of room tone, ambiance, whatever sounds are in the area. You'll need these for editing later.
It's important to engage non-professionals in conversation and talk to them about things they're comfortable with--their business, family, leisure activities. Gradually get around to the kinds of questions you need to ask them to get responses for the commercial. By then they'll be used to talking to you and will have forgotten about the fact that they're being recorded.
Ask open-ended questions. Don't ask questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Don't be afraid to ask for more than one response to a question. If they give you something that's too long, too short, or not focused, ask them to rephrase it. Most people will be happy to do this. Simply say, "Please say the same thing in one sentence," or, "Tell me a little bit more about that."
If you only want their words, resist the urge to comment on what they're saying. If you want to give them some acknowledgment, do it with eye contact, or with a nod. Let body language do the talking for you. That way you'll have a good clean recording. If you want your interaction to be part of the commercial, then self-monitor your responses and don't be afraid to re-record any of your comments on the spot.
Have a list of questions and possible responses prepared in advance. It's best not to read from a list but it isn't terrible if you do that either. As you're going through your questions, if what they're saying leads you to another question further down the list, just follow them. If they lead you somewhere unexpected, let them. In some cases you'll end up with a much more inventive and interesting response than you might have expected.
Finish by asking them to tell you what they would have liked to be asked, or if they have any interesting stories to share that might fit the commercial.
If you're interviewing customers or people on the street, keep in mind that you have only a few seconds to convince them to talk to you. Approach them gently and ask permission before you begin and explain to them that their words will be used in a commercial.
In an ideal world, you'd get a signed talent release form each one of them, but even under the best of circumstances, this is difficult. At least record their name and permission to use their comments. If they refuse, simply smile, thank them, and move on to next person.
You'll usually have to interview dozens of people to get a few good comments. It will be a challenge to remain fresh and interested for each con-versation, but will pay off with the "off the cuff" remarks which often can be the most powerful parts of a radio commercial.
Make your job easy: interview people at an event where a business owner invites his best customers to a reception after work with refreshments. In this kind of atmosphere, almost everyone there knows they're going to be interviewed, and they're predisposed to tell good stories.