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Making video case studies for the Government Digital Strategy

I was chuffed to bits to be asked to help the team at the Government Digital Service with the writing and filming of a series of case studies to illustrate the new Government Digital Strategy.

You've all seen "talking heads" videos, where the subject addresses an invisible figure to one side of the camera. I was that invisible figure. And it was a new experience for me.

When Tom Loosemore from GDS phoned me, I was a little hesitant.

"I can write text for you," I said. "That's no problem. But interviewing people on camera isn't something I've done before. I'm happy to give it a go, mind you. If you're happy."

He was happy. A few days later, I found myself in a stuffy meeting room with no natural light, shaking hands with a video production crew (Chris the director, Will the assistant director, and Will the sound recordist), and sitting down to shoot my first interview on camera. We ended up shooting a dozen or so of these, and as time went by I gradually got the hang of it, and taught myself a few useful things as a result.

The first was: the interviewer's job means helping the interviewees feel at ease. Some interviewees were understandably on edge at being asked to speak on camera - it's intimidating to have cameras and bright lights pointing at your face. Using a few tips from the production crew, I tried to help people relax by slowing things down (including the pace at which I asked questions), using a calm tone of voice, and making a few jokes to break the ice.

Secondly, I learned that maintaining eye contact with the interviewee is essential. The reason that talking heads videos are made this way is so that the viewer feels as though they're observing a conversation. If the interviewee looks directly at the camera, it feels to the viewer as if they're being lectured. If the interviewee's eyes starting moving - glancing up at the bright lights, or at the camera crew, or down at their watch - they end up looking nervous, even a bit shifty. No-one wants that. So the interviewer must maintain that eye contact constantly, and encourage the subject to keep talking using smiles, nods and raised eyebrows. I was pretty rubbish at this when we started, but got better as we did more shoots.

Finally, I learned a new-found respect for interviewees who know how video is shot and edited, and speak sentences they know will be cut. Some of our subjects had done this a thousand times before, and they knew exactly what to do. They spoke in whole sentences. With a short gap between each one, like this. Because they know that the video editor will cut stuff out. And just leave the important bits in. So you have to talk like this. Without any ums or ahhs. That's a very tricky thing to do, especially when you're being asked to explain something particularly technical in layman's terms.

So: interviewing on camera. There's more to it than you might think, for both interviewer and interviewee.

(6th November 2012)