Let Your Subjects Do the Talking

Case Study 10 min
Letting your interview subjects do the talking is an engaging storytelling technique that provides first-hand credibility to your message. Watch this video as an example of evoking emotion through a subject's thoughts and feelings, and think about how you might use it to improve your future storytelling products.

Every media product has a message, but communicating the intended message to the intended audience is often more difficult than it seems. A great way to communicate such messages is by letting the subject do the talking. Using this technique, your presence in the interview takes a backseat, sourcing the subject's thoughts and opinions as they contribute organically to a story. When shooting an interview, aim to capture your subject's story in a way that amplifies and electrifies your message.

The best examples of this technique create an informal tone grounded in the subject's experiences and emotions while simultaneously reinforcing the message and getting information across. It is up to you to guide the interview in the most useful direction without speaking over your subject or putting words in their mouth.

In this video, "The Boy Who Was Struck By Lightning," MCC Michael DiMestico uses the subject-led approach to present a cohesive narrative about Caiden's life as a double-amputee and the O'Rourke family's approach to raising him. MCC DiMestico emphasizes strength and resilience directly from those most affected by Caiden's situation.

What Makes It A Great Example?

Caiden and his parents narrate the entire story through their responses to carefully tailored interview questions. In doing so, they communicate a message about the strength and tenacity of military families. There are several benefits to similarly structuring your video. This technique effectively eliminates the middle man (the interviewer) and draws the viewer in by offering a first-hand account of the subject's experiences.

Mike O'Rourke, Caiden's father, expresses how his military training "actually helped" to "detach myself and just do what I had to do" when handling Caiden's surgery. Letting your subjects use their own words, ideas and inflection creates an informal but honest atmosphere, which emphasizes the story's humanity. The story of Caiden's "electricity... his smile... his attitude" in handling challenges is relatable and memorable, which helps the message stick in the minds of the intended audience.

As you conduct your interview, always be aware of the extent to which the subject's telling supports or detracts from your intended message. Listen for elements that you can expand upon to underscore your message. For example, the title of this video, "The Boy Who Was Struck by Lightning," is inspired by the way that Katie O'Rourke describes Caiden's chances of contracting two rare conditions independently "as if he was struck by lightning twice." The theme of lightning and electricity is revisited throughout the video, suggesting the interviewer may have asked follow-up questions as a framing device. In turn, this framing pays off by reinforcing running themes like overcoming obstacles despite overwhelming odds that strengthens the piece's unity and cohesion.

Lessons Learned

When using this technique, you might feel a need to step in during an interview and add your voice. Consider these ideas to combat that impulse:

  • Ask your subject to restate questions in their own words and speak in complete sentences when possible. This is crucial for letting the subject's words stand on their own. For example:
    • Interviewer: "How does it feel to win first place?"
    • Subject: "Winning first place makes me feel..."
  • Get more material – roll for as long as you can. Subjects often offer their best material when they think the formal portion of the interview is over, so keep recording!
  • Ask focused follow-up questions that guide (not push) your subject in the direction you prefer.
  • Wait several seconds before asking a question to ensure that your subject has completely finished their thought. Not only will this give you a cushion of silence for smooth audio editing, but it will also prevent you from cutting your subject off.

By asking the right questions, you can keep the interview focused on your message without dictating what the subjects say. Editing, composition, graphics and added text will give you additional control of framing an overarching narrative. Although, be mindful of drawing too much attention away from the subject. Early in the video, just before the title card, Katie O'Rourke says that "his name is Caiden because it means fighter." Placing this soundbite before the title card creates a gap that gives its implications time to sink in. Choices like this will aid you in affecting the story without overstepping. You have the power to arrange and emphasize parts of the interview that reflect your message, so don’t be afraid to let your subjects do the talking.