FilmKit for charities
a guide for making films responsibly
Making films for social change:
Where do you even start? How can charities make impactful films which do justice to their cause, engage audiences and represent beneficiaries well? We look into the big questions around filmmaking for charities and invite you to feed into the conversation.
Molly Clarke is a digital content officer at CharityComms and a Charity Works fellow. She has an MA in International Development and prior to that, she directed, produced and edited film projects both in a corporate and not-for-profit setting in the UK and internationally.
Mike South is a freelance charity filmmaker. He makes documentaries that put authenticity and the wellbeing of participants first. He’s made films for Diabetes UK, Samaritans, Versus Arthritis, Parkinson’s UK and Dignity in Dying.
With thanks to narrative for the guide’s design template.
The process behind making FilmKit
Molly Clarke and Mike South
Since its inception, film has played a part in influencing the human experience. From wartime propaganda to Pixar tearjerkers, film has shaped thinking, evoked emotion and changed perceptions – for better or worse. As a sector that advocates for equality, we have an opportunity to use film to amplify, enhance, or even lead in our comms. We can make injustice visible. We can inspire people with stories of strength and resilience. We can underline the need for change.
Across the sector, film is being used to engage audiences, increase understanding of causes and empower people to take action. It can be such a force for good.
But making a film can be difficult, stressful and complex. With so many decisions to be made along the way how do you know if you’re doing it ‘right’? Despite good intentions, it’s possible to inadvertently do some harm. To create a positive film experience for everyone, we need to really think about our process – from conception to dissemination and beyond.
To make our films act as vehicles for good, we need to make our films responsibly.
What is FilmKit?
This guide outlines ways that charities can use film for good – good for the participants, good for the organisation and good for society.
To make films responsibly charities need to:
- Tell stories that truly benefit society
- Empower participants through genuine collaboration
- Use charity resources responsibly
- Work ethically with filmmakers
FilmKit is the start of our conversation about how we as a sector go about addressing those areas. We’ve pulled together research we’ve done across the sector – and created a live document that we hope will continue to grow and grow.
We’ve chosen to publish this guide in stages – getting you the information you need as quickly as possible – but more importantly, making you part of its creation.
We want this to be an inclusive process, as inclusive as possible, representing real filmmaking challenges in the sector and creating a shared idea of what best practice looks like. FilmKit will be shaped by your needs and your expertise.
- What do you really want to know? Tell us.
- Have something to add or think we are missing something? Let us know.
- Want to offer your expertise? Interested in helping us expand the research? Let us know.
- Completely disagree with what we have said already? Don’t hold back!
There are so many ways that this could be expanded, but again, we want to give you what is useful to you.
Here are some of the things we are considering looking at in the future. If you know you’d like to hear more about these topics, give us a shout.
- Inhouse vs out of house
- Benefits and drawbacks of participatory filmmaking
- Getting your house in order – setting up a seamless process for inhouse filmmaking
- Getting the right filmmakers (and keeping them!)
- Finding the right participant
- Costing film effectively
Tweet us using the hashtag #CCFilmKit or get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org
Who are your guides on this journey?
Throughout this guide you’ll be hearing from us; Molly and Mike so let us introduce ourselves…
Hi I’m Molly, I’ve been studying/making/writing about film (with varying levels of success) for almost ten years now and have done research across the charity sector about policy and practice in charity filmmaking. I’ll be starting by laying out some of the overarching themes and offering up useful examples that will help you realise how framing affects the subjects in the films you make. Mike calls me the ‘fun police’, but if we start with policing ourselves for just a bit, we’ll end up with content which is engaging, keeps people safe and preserves their integrity. What’s more fun than that?
Hi, I’m Mike. I make documentary films solely for charities. I work very collaboratively with my subjects – putting their wellbeing above everything else. I spent five years managing Parkinson’s UK’s film team, figuring out strategy, process and best practice, as well as making a LOT of films. I know how complex making films can be – and how this can play out internally. Over the years I’ve shared what I know with the sector through talks, workshops and mentorships and now I’m super happy to be helping bring FilmKit to you. Whilst Molly’s incredible research will help you think about why you’re making your films I’ll be helping you think about how. I’ll be focusing on practical processes for creating your films and giving you a ton of tips I’ve learned over the years. My advice… find what will work best for you and steal it!
Increasingly, with the rise of video on social platforms and equipment becoming more accessible by the minute, video is becoming common place. In fact, internet networking company Cisco predict video will make up 82% of all consumer internet traffic by 2020. In response, charities are setting up in-house teams, relying on social media teams to create bite-sized audio-visual content and generally trying to upscale their video production. As that happens, though, so much can go awry.
People on all sides of the filmmaking process across the sector seem to be experiencing similar problems – lack in understanding where video sits, how difficult it is to produce, how much time it takes, what is realistic with the resources we have, and what can and should be shown to audiences. And though as a sector we have progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of the way we work with and represent contributors in our video content, there are still improvements to be made. If we want video to help us make serious societal change, we have to start by taking it seriously.
That’s why we wanted to make this resource. We, the authors, have been there and we know how many things there are to think about when planning and producing films. Plus, to get buy in for film, we know that you often have to prove it’s value while working on a shoestring and with limited time. We wanted some of the thinking to be there for you – so you can get on with getting the damn thing made.
Who is it for?
Yes, this guide looks at the how and the why of filmmaking. But it also considers the broader issues of the stories we tell, who gets to tell them, how they get collected and shared and whether the ends justify the means. If we want to change the understanding and culture of image making in the charity sector, everyone needs to be on board – so everyone needs to be part of the conversation.
If you have any part in your charity’s films – whether commissioning, conceiving, advising, making, giving feedback or marketing – this guide is for you. It will help you consider whether your films are being produced in a responsible way and in ways that are in line with your charity’s values. It will help you tell the right stories and empower those who tell them. Charity film helps give people a platform to raise their voice and tell their stories so let’s make sure we get the process right.
Importantly, this guide can also help you get internal buy in to change the way your charity thinks about and uses film.
Not everything will be relevant to you – and that’s OK – so just take what is useful!
Where we’ve begun
To start us off, we’ve looked at areas of filmmaking that we believe to be integral to the process. Firstly, we look at how you find a frame, based on what you want your audience to understand about the cause you’re working on, and how you want them to react. We’ll also look at the ethical side to what and how to represent your cause through filmmaking.
If you’re thinking of working directly with someone who has lived experience of your cause in order to produce a film it’s not just a case of grabbing your camera and hitting the road. There are skills and techniques to a thoughtful, comfortable and enjoyable filmmaking process for all involved. For example what makes a great interviewer and a great interviewee? We’ve started by sharing some key tips for getting started.
Representation: framing & ethics
digital content officer at CharityComms
When we are tasked with making or developing films for a charity, where do we start? Of all the many ways we could engage audiences with our message, film – as with other content forms – raises questions such as how do we know which elements to choose to include and crucially what do we need to avoid?
There is a tendency to follow tried and tested methods that we know reap results – looking to other charity films which have achieved their objectives. It sounds logical but doesn’t exactly harbour creativity. This can be useful up to a point (and certainly we will use films from across the sector to build a picture of good practice here), but in some cases this can end up harming our long-term objectives.
The primary argument for poverty porn, for example, is that it raises money to change lives. It tugs on heartstrings and induces guilt, compelling audiences to give. However, beyond being patronising and enforcing neo-colonial ideals, it’s not a viable long-term plan. A study by academics Irene Bruna Seu and Shani Orgad called ‘Caring in Crisis’ which considers the views of the British public on aid campaigns, found that audiences had less trust in charities’ ability to create change, because they had responded to the calls for funds yet continued to see the same messaging.
Further, audiences demonstrated compassion fatigue – the state that people get into when they are constantly being told to be passionate about problems which seem unending or with no solution. This means people switch off from messaging and, over time, feel powerless or even manipulated which leads to them having less inclination to give.
Research by the University of East Anglia’s media and international development lecturer Martin Scott shows that audiences will often look for ways to dismiss charity campaigns. This could be by telling themselves things such as ‘they are just trying to manipulate me’ or ‘they just want my money’. The solution, he says, lies in presenting a story that people cannot so easily dismiss.
“I think the best way of designing appeals is to frame them in surprising and challenging ways that don’t allow us to dismiss things so easily, so we don’t have these prepackaged discursive resources that allow us to reject them and move on with our lives, feeling fine without having learnt or done anything. ” – Martin Scott
But as one fundraiser at a CharityComms creatives group put it– how can we ask for help with a problem, if we don’t show the problem?
To be clear, this doesn’t mean we shy away from telling our audiences about the problems we face, but putting the problem front and centre of all our film campaigns builds a picture in our audiences mind that this is all that exists in the lives of our beneficiaries. That’s simply not true, nor will it result in effective content. We have a responsibility to harness our creativity when planning video content, while retaining authenticity – so how do we ensure this as we build a film content plan?
It starts with finding a frame…
Finding a frame
We can’t begin to surprise our audience without first understanding what they currently think. So, as with anything, understanding your audience has to come first. An integral part of this is understanding how they are processing issues and this is arguably inherently tied in to how issues are being framed, by which we mean the way issues are presented to an audience, and the understanding and response they are expected to take from having the information presented in this way.
A good way to think about this in practice is by asking what your audience believes about your cause/beneficiaries. And if they have a negative view, where does that come from?
As senior campaign strategist and UK lead at the Frameworks Institute Nicky Hawkins put it at the Bond conference, 2019, what is the root belief behind your audience’s views?
Nicky raises a good point here as the research she has been working on at The Frameworks Institute, in partnership with the JRF, on how to talk about UK Poverty, has led to the two organisations advocating for a solutions-focused approach to communication around poverty in the UK.
This leads us to a key area to consider when establishing the root of frames in society; how the media are presenting an issue. This is important because it can help you work out what questions to ask, such as:
- what information is already out there?
- what stereotypes or misconceptions exist about your beneficiaries?
- what effects might this have on beneficiaries’ experience of moving through the world?
- how can this be improved?
Nicky Hawkins’ tips from Bond Conference 2019
1. Understand what you’re up against in terms of public belief – what is the root cause?
2. Present a new narrative
3. Reinforce it – there is a tendency to keep trying to tell new stories, though that has a place we need to be consistent with our reframing efforts. A major factor in people considering something to be true is the number of times they’ve heard it.
Can you continue to surprise your audience, while following Nicky’s last tip? Arguably, yes – you don’t need to change your message to creatively tell stories from different angles.
One example which Martin Scott points to was the story of the refugee Olympic team: “I’m not sure how audiences can dismiss the idea that: ‘Oh those refugees, always being so… athletic’?”
This take presents an alternative narrative from the popularised one. It underscores that people seeking refuge from crisis are as diverse, skilled and human as the people from countries facing less strife –in a way that audiences are perhaps less used to seeing.
This new narrative can be reinforced in a host of engaging ways, as exemplified in the International Rescue Committee’s campaign for World Refugee Day, #MoreThanARefugee.
What works particularly well in these films – you can watch the full versions here – is that they all harness the creativity and diversity of their creators and contributors in different ways while reiterating the same message. From spoken word poetry to vlogs, the viewer is drawn to watch different pieces of content all while hearing the message reinforced time after time – that displaced people are more than refugees.
Jamie Wright (IRC) echoed the importance of reinforcing your message at the Raw London Relay event where his top tips for effective video content were:
- Don’t get bored of your message: people deserve to know what you’re fighting for so don’t be afraid to repeat your message – you don’t need to keep changing it.
- It’s not about you – it’s about your values, and connecting your audience with those.
- Tell the story of us – the missions and values we share as a community.
For this to work well, it’s important that everyone is on the same page. Get clear on how you will represent your beneficiaries in all your film content and create documentation for this, to promote unity across departments. A good example of this is WaterAid’s ethical image policy.
What practical action can we take?
- Develop framing in line with your charitable values.
- Instead of fighting the preconceptions and misinformation you want to change, present a new one.
- Be creative in the ways you express your message, but consistent with the message itself.
If we are thinking about developing frames for our beneficiaries, we have to deeply consider representation.
Again we return to the content ecosystem – our content does not exist in a vaccum and when we are representing marginalised groups, we may be one of very few who are doing so. With that in mind, ask yourself is the way we are presenting our beneficiaries encouraging equality?
Why do I need to think about this when I’m making film?
Because film and video can be a window to the world that our audiences would not otherwise get. With great power comes great responsibility!
When it comes to ethical and useful representation, there is no one-size-fits-all. Best practice in this sphere comes from understanding why things go well and recognising and responding to failure. Below, we’ll look into ways that representation is getting better, and the effects of this, and areas where representation still falls short and what that means on a bigger scale.
Putting it into context – the content ecosystem of LGBTQ representation.
LGBTQ people are diverse, with a range of identities influenced by gender, sexuality, cultural background, economic background and so on – just like everyone else. In popularised media, there has been a lack of representation of this diversity, and LGBTQ representation in the past has gone from non-existent, to tokenistic. It’s now getting better, particularly with the rise in independent creators, production becoming more affordable and the rise of streaming platforms. But what did it look like when representation was less frequent?
In 1994, a short film was released about a young boy named Trevor realising he was gay and facing thoughts of suicide. After winning an academy award, the film was to be aired on HBO. The producers realised that children across the US were going to be watching the film, including those facing similar issues. Realising there was no national support service for LGBTQ youth, they started the first US helpline for LGBTQ youth in crisis. This was launched ten minutes before the film went on air. So the Trevor Project was born – the world’s largest suicide prevention organisation for LGBTQ young people, and as CEO Amit Paley highlights in an interview with the Queery podcast, “the phone started ringing off the hook that night and it hasn’t stopped since”.
Diverse representation which expresses some realm of the complexity of the human experience allows audiences to connect, and for people who relate to have their feelings validated. Conversely, relying on stereotypes or one-dimensional portrayals encourages a restrictive understanding of the world around us, and of ourselves.
So, fair, accurate and equal representation of LGBTQ people in film can have two major results:
- More stories which encourage audiences to empathise with different people can accelerate acceptance of those differences.
- Audiences may see themselves in the content, which is important because having media role models can have a positive impact on understanding who they are, feeling a sense of pride and comfort in their identity.
So where do charities fit in?
When charities make films, the audience is made up of supporters, beneficiaries and cold audiences. Crucially within this, many people watching the content will in some way have been affected by your cause – potentially directly. To represent a charity beneficiary as a stereotype or a victim will affect the beneficiary watching it, and the people who make up the society around them. Conversely, actively trying to subvert stereotypes or tell untold stories of your beneficiaries can help beneficiaries feel seen, and help others better understand their lived experience.
This means being aware of where the gaps are and responding to that, so having a range of stories illustrating the diverse experiences of the people we exist to support. It’s the ability to look at the ecosystem and focus attention on what is needed.
It makes absolute sense that charities be at the forefront of making change through their comms – and ensuring that they live their values. In recent years, Stonewall has been a particularly good example. Stonewall’s mission is “to let all lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, here and abroad, know they’re not alone” and their content direction reflects that.
Most recently, they were working with an independent filmmaker to produce Stonewall BAME voices, a series of films platforming BAME LGBTQ people throughout the UK.
Sanjay Sood-Smith, Director of Empowerment Programmes at Stonewall explains in the charity’s BAME LGBT Voices documentary: “Listening to and learning from the experiences of marginalised minorities is a vital part of creating a more inclusive culture. For that to happen, BAME LGBT people need more public platforms to speak safely about issues that affect them in their own voices, and for the diversity of their experiences to be represented.”
This particular episode underscores the importance of representation and what it means for people to find examples of themselves in culture.
Questions to ask:
- Who are you not reaching?
- How can you find ways to engage or involve them? (note: while keeping them safe)
Should charities be responsible for this?
There’s the argument that mainstream culture can do massive things to change perceptions – but these changes don’t happen on their own and it’s through the work of activists and change-makers, of which charities and NGOs are at the forefront, that there is more of a demand for diverse representation in the media.
This is exemplified in the case of the LGBTQ movement. The representation of LGBTQ people in media has improved in recent years, but not without struggle. The organisation GLAAD has been advocating and working for fair, accurate and equal representation of LGBTQ people in media since 1985.
Despite GLAAD’s years of work though former US vice president Joe Biden famously declared on NBC that “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
Here, Joe appeared to completely forget that people have been campaigning for LGBTQ equality in life and in media long before it was seen as acceptable for two white, cis, gay men to exist on television. That’s not to say that Will and Grace wasn’t important, but it didn’t exist in a vacuum. The social culture didn’t just spontaneously change because someone wrote a witty gay character into a script. Presenting media representation and social activism as two separate entities is inaccurate.
GLAAD was founded 13 years before Will & Grace first aired. So, a media watchdog organisation existed and campaigned for diverse representation of LGBT communities 13 years before the pop culture show “did more to educate the American public” than anyone, in the eyes of the previous Vice President. Will & Grace happened 29 years after the Stonewall riots and in the aftermath of a monumental health and social justice crisis which robbed the LGBTQ community of close to a full generation of its men. Throughout people clamoured to be listened to. Indeed, just the previous year, Ellen DeGeneres caused controversy and lost her career (albeit temporarily) by coming out as gay. A huge amount of work happens before pop culture changes. As charities and civil society organisations, we stand for the people we represent, and have an opportunity to be part of that work.
Wonderfully, our media channels and platforms are becoming more diverse, especially now that audiences have more control than ever before. Platforms are responding – charities need to too. We are part of a multicultural, interconnected world and we are accountable to the people within it who watch our content.
We cannot see our audiences as a monocultural / single issue mass.
LGBTQ charity film often recognises that LGBTQ people will be watching and often, LGBTQ people have a hand in creating the content. This is not always the case when it comes to International development communication, particularly concerning the African continent. Sometimes, the differences are stark.
Pitfalls of ignoring representation
digital content officer at CharityComms
Clearly the issue of representation is a big one and should not be overlooked. As charity communicators we need to be unwaveringly conscious of how the way we portray people can change how the wider public view both the subject you are representing and the issues that you are trying to highlight around them.
Therefore recognising not just when the representation of people on film goes well, but also when it goes wrong is essential. Only by learning from the representation failures that are littered throughout history can we as an industry hope to do better.
Here, I’ve considered the good and bad in terms of how we understand and consider stories from across the African continent, looking particularly at Ethiopia, but also looking at specific examples from Uganda and Kenya. It should be noted that they are diverse countries, but I hope this analysis will help consider how we look at and represent nations which are considered as part of the Global South.
Let’s take a look at this idea of representation in more detail and put one such failure under the spotlight…
A personal experience of misrepresentation
Here I offer you an anecdote which I hope helps contextualize what I mean by a failure in representation.
I was 12 when my parents told me we were moving to Ethiopia. I remember excitedly nattering to my Scottish friend Amy about it, as her parents drove us to the swimming pool. Amy’s mother turned around and her eyes widened. She exclaimed ‘Ethiopia eh, I have a joke about there.’ What she said next is awful and I’m sorry for presenting you with it – but I think it’s important that we stare this in the face.
‘What do you call an Ethiopian with big feet? – a golf club! What about an Ethiopian with a big nose?… a bus stop.’
I’m now old enough to understand that, beyond being a horrific racist with a terrible idea of what constituted as humour, this woman’s understanding of Ethiopia was built by the news coverage two decades prior, and the subsequent campaigns which followed.
Speaking to people as I grew, it seemed, though perceptions were less horrific – no one had a picture of Ethiopia in their mind that went further than extreme poverty. Such is the legacy of the seminal televised news report from Michael Buerk and the subsequent Live Aid campaign, etching a picture in the minds of audiences of an Ethiopia characterised by drought, famine and skeletal frames. The images of the city of Mekele in the 1980’s were burned into the collective psyche and passed down through generations. There was no counter narrative. Ethiopia was barely talked about in the press, there were no films set there which reached the western eye and charity campaigns… well, the DRTV ads suggested not much had changed in the seemingly homogenous desert plains of ‘Africa’.
This has real effects on people’s lives and the way that they are perceived. I recently heard author Sisonke Msimang speak about a storyteller she was working with who was a refugee from Ethiopia. Msimang, whose work focuses on race, gender and democracy, told of how the woman felt belittled every time someone in her new residence of Australia expressed “oh, Ethiopia? You’re so lucky to be here.” As Msimang explained with those few words the woman’s culture was undermined and the richness of her history erased. In a situation where a woman had been made quite vulnerable, she is denied the strength of parts of her identity, purely from the perceptions of where she has come from. Make no mistake that this is a result of limited and irresponsible storytelling.
Why am I telling you this? Because sometimes we need to be confronted with the very real consequences that can come if we as charities do not step up to fight for real representation of fellow human beings who exist on our planet.
So I’ve outlined a clear problem of a failure in representation, namely when it comes to Ethiopia, but anecdotes aside where are we now when it comes to failure to represent people on a wider scale? What can be useful is to take specific examples from different areas around the globe and pull out the recurrent problems that can be seen to be repeatedly occurring.
But we are moving forward! Comic Relief imagery debate is making waves in the press.
The fact that the Comic Relief Debate got so much coverage did feel that perhaps we are moving closer to finding a solution. But when looked at in further detail, it is arguable that much of the rhetoric suggests we have a long way to go.
Let’s start with a positive note – David Lammy’s Twitter thread was excellent. But we should address the fact that this positive quickly descended into the negative as the debate was co-opted to talk about whether or not it was okay for Stacey Dooley to have been there. Still, we are talking about celebrities and white people. They overtake the narrative in the debate around development comms, just like they do in the actual communications we are arguing about. We have all seen the photo of Stacey holding a Ugandan child, but does anyone know that child’s name?
Let’s move the conversation away from celebs and white people – it’s not about them and the more energy we give to that debate, the less energy we have for finding alternative, useful ways of communicating about development projects. What’s more useful is to work through the problem of failed representation in comms which we’re presented with ..
Problem: Comic Relief said that David Lammy had been offered the opportunity to go to ‘Africa’! (why is this not a solution?)
The antidote to the ‘white saviour’ trope is not flying a black British MP out to ‘Africa’. There is a clear and distinct problem with parashooting an outsider into a community they know nothing about, to be the bridge between worlds. Why? Because of two problematic assumptions which arise out of such action.
The assumptions this type of response makes is that one: it suggests we need someone British to visit emerging economies so that British audiences can relate and two; it also implies that Africa is one homogenous place that David Lammy will automatically relate to because of the colour of his skin.
With the first assumption there is the subtext that the people in the community are so completely other-worldly that they cannot connect with a Western audience themselves. Let’s be frank – that’s rubbish. We are all human beings and if you can’t find something about a person which is relatable to other human beings, you’re not working hard enough. While with the second assumption it just as unhelpfully implies that everyone will have a shared knowledge and awareness of a particular continent based on their skin colour. Fact check – David Lammy was born in Tottenham and his parents are from Guyana not Uganda. It’s like expecting a person who grew up in America, with parents from Australia to understand every European walk of life from Helsinki to the Isle of Skye. People communicating issues that affect a community should be in some way understanding of that community and that comes from experience and connection. It does not come from purely being the same colour.
Answer: Moving forward a continuing journey
So what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the context of representing, for example, Ethiopia? It’s the same as anything – a useful frame, considerate of what has come before and diverse storytelling which presents more than one narrative. But to go deeper, let’s analyse what exists already and the lessons that it offers.
There isn’t one way to do development comms and it should be noted that everything should be evaluated on a case by case basis with consideration of context.
As previously noted there are some things which stand out when you start to analyse charities’ approaches to representing their subjects. These are particularly evident when looking at international development communication.
Of course as with all of you, I know people working for these places – they’re smart and thoughtful but clearly the issue of how to represent people from communities that we ourselves are not from is one which as an industry we have still not found the answer to.
Despite all the conversation around breaking free of stereotypes in the sector – we are not there yet, but this does not mean we will not get there.
What we can learn from past representations:
*Useful representation of Low Income Countries (LIC’s) is not:
Portraying people as poor and happy instead of poor and sad. It is not enough to subvert a narrative by plastering a new, and equally reductive one on top of it. The opposite of ‘flies in their eyes’ coverage is not a picture of a singing, dancing community. When changing a frame in order to help reshape a damaging narrative it is not just a case of replacing it wholesale with its opposite. No situation is black and white or happy and sad. Reflecting those glorious shades of inbetween is to reflect the oh-so-human complexity of a given situation.
Top Tip: Whenever I see the kind of film that has clearly just plastered a new happy face on something all I can hear in my head is the famous Skokiaan (South African Song). Originally a musical piece from Zimbabwe, the song’s lyrics were added later by Tom Glazer, where the words of, “Oh-far away in Africa / Happy, happy Africa / …You sing a bingo bango bingo / In hokey pokey skokiaan” were described as ‘ethnographic condescension’ by Time colomnist Richard Corliss, which really is putting it lightly. If you watch your new campaign film back and it too makes you think of this song, bin it. It’s not doing enough.
Exclamations of ‘the people are incredible!’ from astounded westerners. Think of your hometown. Would you say that the people are incredible? Chances are that you think of a range of people who are great, and then a few you don’t get on with. Human beings are complex, and to say that a whole race of people are ‘incredible’ is reductionist and implies that you see them only on a superficial level. In portraying people in such a one-dimensional way you are effectively suggesting it’s fine for your audience to too.
Calling locally based project officers ‘food heroes’ or ‘smiley and enthusiastic’. It could be true, but it is patronising. Remember they are predominantly experts with a huge amount of hands on experience and should be recognised for that. Stop reducing them to caricatures, or tokenistic emblems.
Getting a field officer, rather than a white person, to bring a project beneficiary in front of a camera. Spend time with people and get to know their story. Treat them as contributors rather than something to be observed – they don’t need someone accompanying them on to camera.
“When changing a frame in order to help reshape a damaging narrative it is not just a case of replacing it wholesale with its opposite.“
Prioritise good interpretation – especially in a humanitarian context. Will you be using local field staff as interpreters? Check out this guidance, prepared for the DEC by Kate Wright.
*Issues are complex and you can end up in the middle when it comes to effective and ineffective representation
As I mentioned before, it’s important to look at things on a case-by-case basis. Things aren’t always clear cut and sometimes charity films that have taken leaps and strides to ensure their representation is clear and true may also include – most likely unbeknownst to them at the time of creating said film – elements which could be seen as representationally problematic.
For example one project which does promote a better framing approach, but still leaves room for improvement is charity:water’s.
“It’s important to look at things on a case-by-case basis”
Even the best charity videos can still contain elements of the problematic – Ethiopia.
charity:water are clear on their values – they don’t objectify the poor and they check their content with the people who are involved. They created a series based in Mekele, where the original BBC famine report was filmed – though there are grounds for disagreeing with their approach, some things are done well and this is one of them:
Starting with the positive, the series is fun – it’s well shot, well edited, and interesting. Further, it also reflects a more useful picture of Mekele. It platforms the pivotal work of the local NGO and nods to the strides the area has made since it was devastated by famine.
It also actively teaches audiences about some of the cultural elements of Ethiopia which aren’t covered elsewhere, like in this video about meeting the partners:
However, and this is where it gets problematic, what it also does is centre around the charity:water content strategist, who is an American man.
The implication is that we feel the need to put an American person in the middle of an Ethiopian context in order to relate. Pandering to that creates a barrier between the audience in the Global North and the subjects of the film.
Consider the way that Louis Theroux films his documentaries. He may get under the skin of the situation and uncover some interesting issues, but he is always an outsider looking in, digging around with a sarcastic curiosity that the viewer shares. We connect as a British audience to the oddball Englishman, trusting that he will guide us through. We as the audience are led to think about the protagonists the way that Louis suggests we should.
Arguably in this film series a variation on the same style is used here, but for different means. The viewer is still an outsider, because our protagonist is an outsider. The viewer is put in his shoes, perpetuating distance due to language and cultural barriers. charity:water do this quite deliberately at times, to make an effective point. For example during the below film where our protagonist learns just how strong the young girl has to be to transport water each day – a feat that the protagonist isn’t quite up to.
This suggests to viewers that people in Mekele may not be as helpless as portrayed in the past, and that they may in fact have skills that viewers themselves don’t have, yet it relies on the presence of an outsider to make this point.
This could be argued to be useful if done correctly – if it changes the minds of viewers who have no connection to the country and encourages them to look further. However the key takeaway is that the film’s protagonist is an outsider in a country characterised by underdevelopment and poverty. There is little opportunity to connect with people on a deeper level because of the cultural barriers, the language barriers, and often the perceived power and importance which comes with being a white person with camera equipment in a rural community.
Sometimes, things like this need to be documented to illustrate the inequalities which exist throughout our world. It should never be ignored. But this becomes problematic when a country with vibrancy, history and varied and diverse culture is represented solely as impoverished.
It’s not all bad though
To leave this debate about representation and failures thereof on a more positive note it is worth acknowledging that some people are starting to show that it is possible to walk the tightrope between effective and ineffective portrayals.
In her presentation at the Power of Human Stories Conference Jess Crombie, humanitarian communications consultant, pressed that an important finding from her research ‘The People in the Pictures’ was that if we were to show images of extreme poverty, this can’t be the only thing we show. This is why Girl Effect’s project Yegna is so effective and should be looked to as an example of finding a way to navigate the various problematics that are both evident and hidden in everything we do when creating charity films.
Project Yegna’s aim is to empower Ethiopian women and does this through a radio drama, a TV drama and songs from the Ethiopian girl band. Because of the nature of this project, it has two categories of content – one which is part of the programmatic work, so the drama and music videos, and the other which expresses the aims and impact of the project. The former is important as much for Ethiopian audiences as western. I would love to see more of a blend of the two. See for yourself:
The content which addresses impact is a little less empowering, but still ahead of other content out there. The implication is that exposure to the project was the only thing that overturned the young girls’ lives although in reality there is so much more to the project. This may be because of pressure to really underscore that a difference is being made as Yegna has to really hammer home its impact – something that became evident when its funding from DFID was very publicly pulled after the Daily Mail labelled the band ‘Ethiopia’s Spice Girls’.
This underlines some of the problems we face as comms professionals, that it’s often hard to claim impact from communications overall. Change in perception and awareness is far less tangible than, for example, number of children vaccinated. But I’m preaching to the choir if I say that it doesn’t make comms any less important. Yegna was sadly vilified in the press, in an era where the messaging around the UK aid budget becomes more and more insular – not unlike politics across the world. Still, Yegna is going strong with new funding from philanthropic organisations, and the organisation is effective at demonstrating its impact.
But it is not the only story being told through the brand, and the other more longform videos – part of the programmatic work mentioned earlier – are much more engaging in a positive way. Take a look:
This content illustrates that poverty can be shown without being disempowering. Poverty is part of the film, because it’s a part of the context Yegna is operating in. However it’s not the only thing that is being shown about the people. They may experience poverty, but are not emblems of poverty – just like useful portrayals of LGBTQ people are not emblems of gayness or transsexuality.
It’s refreshing to see diverse storytelling from across the African continent, which moves beyond emblematic representation. It’s fun, fierce and frivolous – which is something Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu wants to see more of.
Fun? Fierce? Frivolous?
Kahiu is a Kenyan filmmaker who set up ‘Afrobubblegum’ in response to the idea that dealing with African stories meant dealing with traumatic issues. She wanted to create and commission art for art’s sake, which celebrated tales of joy, of fun, from across the continent.
Charities can’t just be talking about fun and frivolity – I get that. But it’s really worth watching her Ted Talk to get a handle on some of the discussion coming from people across the African continent and how the single story can shape and influence perceptions.
In saying this, Kahiu’s most recent film, Rafiki, does not shy away from the traumatic. It follows the story of the daughters of two Nairobi politicians who fall in love. Many of their peers don’t accept their homosexuality which is a major point of tension in the film. At the same time it is fun, fierce and frivolous – it shows joy, laughter, colour, culture and personality. It’s multifaceted. Just like real life.
Again, the fact that stories from across the continent are reductive is not just the fault of charities. It’s the fault of the news agenda, of perceived cultural difference, of lack of societal representation, of colonialist legacy and of racism. There are so many reasons that the content ecosystem is the way it is and so many ways it can be fought against. But we do have a responsibility as content creators in this space to be aware of this and to do our part to break down harmful stereotypes. I think being aware of movements like these, and mindful of this when in the creative process is a good start.
Further, the existence of Afrobubblegum is to support and platform artists from across the African continent and diasporic communities. Kahiu has highlighted the importance of having diverse stories from diverse people. This hammers home the point that the best people to decide, review and give feedback on how an issue or place is represented is the people who have direct, personal and lived experience.
What I’ve aimed to do here is to platform some great work which contributes to more positive representations of different countries on the African continent. I’ve also outlined where there is still room for growth. This illustrates that we as communicators can continue to review and improve the way we communicate about the issues we aim to support, to ensure that we are doing justice to the complexity and humanity of our causes.
- You can show a problem without perpetuating stereotypes
- Find ways to show complexity
- Platform local voices in holistic ways
- Have diverse teams working on and feeding into projects
- Think Afrobubblegum – not Skokiaan
Become a great interviewer
So you’ve found someone with a great story to tell. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be naturally good at telling it.
It’s your job to guide them through their storytelling – in a way that will be most useful to your supporters – while still staying true to the interviewee. You want them to be comfortable, open and truly themselves. You want this to be a positive experience for them. The best way to help you do this is to:
“Have a conversation, not an interview.”
Traditional interviews can come across as constructed performances. A series of pre-written questions, with edited or stock responses. And viewers can usually tell. We are hard-wired to look for tiny clues that let us know when someone isn’t being genuine. A performed series of answers will be less trustworthy and less relatable – and as a result – less useful to your cause. This would be a disservice to the incredible story you’re telling.
It should feel relaxed
Think about the last time you were in on of those ‘small talk traps’ in the office kitchen. You’re both filling those awkward minutes while you wait for the kettle to boil. Now think about the last after-work drink you had with a friend. That (hopefully!) felt super different.
In a relaxed conversation:
- You already know things about the other person (Do the Research and Where to Start)
- You both want to be there (Collaborating Effectively)
- You’re not struggling to think of what to say (Planning Questions)
- You care about what the other person thinks (Holding their Focus)
- You actually connect with the other person (Creating Genuine Connection)
- The conversation flows easily (Make the Conversation Flow)
- You feel comfortable asking personal questions (Constructive Challenging)
These are the things you can look to incorporate naturally as part of your conversation. Right, let’s get started and dig deeper into how to subvert the traditional ‘interview’ – and how to have an authentic conversation with your subject.
Do the research
Being filmed is a scary, brave thing to do. Your subject is being incredibly generous – and you should show them that you’re grateful. Make it clear that you respect their time and their story – and will handle it with sensitivity and grace. Your subject, and their time is valuable, so you should:
“Make your subject feel valued,
even before you shoot.”
This means properly researching them and their story beforehand. They aren’t just a ‘supporter’ but a layered person with unique life lessons that you want to hear. You’ll need to learn:
- Basic Information about them and of their story. Including names, places, dates of everyone involved.
- An overview of their story. Read their case study (if you have one) and turn it into a cheat sheet. Memorise it.
- Interests. What are their passions? What do they believe in?
- Personality. Are they outspoken? Nervous?
- Safety. Do they need someone with them? Do they have triggers or no go areas?
Dealing with difficult situations
In my first project involving addictive behaviour, I was very worried about affecting the safety of my subject and viewers. Discussing details of their addiction could trigger those patterns of behaviour.
Fortunately, the charity had an incredible staff member who gave me very specific no go areas to avoid. They also helped me identify useful ways to approach certain topics in the safest way possible.
My subject was very open and naturally went into those danger areas. Having spoken with the staff member I felt confident that I knew enough to steer the conversation back to a safer place – rather than following their lead. If you don’t think you know enough – find someone who does.
On another occasion, the first time I filmed with an amputee, I knew bringing up the painful subject of limb loss would be difficult. I suggested going to their favourite place (a sailing club) for lunch. I let them talk passionately about sailing for a while, until they naturally brought up the fact that getting onto the boat was more difficult now they’ve lost a leg.
This conversational insight created the opportunity for me to start asking those difficult questions on their terms – in a place they felt most comfortable. They ended up trusting me enough to voice something they hadn’t ever done before, and (almost more importantly) invited me to go sailing!
Where to start
Look up existing written case studies
Your charity might already have a written story. Charities with story managers or media officers should have a system in place for getting this on the first contact. Other comms teams might have already produced something about the person on your website or printed materials.
Talk to your colleagues
The likelihood is that someone else in the charity has already had contact with them. Ask them what they think. Is there anything you should know?
Research them on social media
People’s personality, passions and beliefs are part of their digital life. What they’ve already been willing to share publicly will likely be what they are willing to share with you. Remember though it is important to be upfront about this part of the process. A good way you can go about this is to have a work account for each social platform you use and then you can connect with them openly through that.
This gives you the chance to ‘feel them out’, gauge their personality and also serves as a good opportunity for setting expectations for the day of recording. Doing this over the phone is pretty standard – but I usually ask their permission to record the conversations (using an app or external recorder).
An audio recording does a great job of capturing ‘them’ as well as their story. The recording will be super useful to anyone else working on the project – or future ones. The recording will be much more useful to you than a written account. Of course, make sure you have their permission and keep the recording in line with GDPR policies.
“Is this going to go well?” You might be asking that – and so will they. You can help shape the interviewee’s experience before the shoot day. You need to make sure they are excited to be a part of the project and know what to expect.
Find out what they want to get out of the project
Speak to them about what they hope they can gain from the work with you. Whether it’s about sharing their story, helping others, raising awareness etc, getting an understanding of what their needs are will help guide you in making sure the process is as useful for them as possible.
Tell them who you are and why you care
Let them know you’re not just a ‘camera-person’. Share your ‘why’ – why you make films, why you work for the charity, and why you personally connect to their story. Make it clear that you are sincerely trying to tell their story, not just using it to tell the story of your charity.
Tell them this isn’t a regular interview
No-one is ever totally relaxed about an upcoming interview. I personally find it nerve-racking! They might be shy or guarded. They might have had a bad experience with another interview. Let them know this will be a relaxed conversation.
Let them know what will happen on the day
What will filming look like? How many people will be there? How long will it take? These details help them to imagine what will happen – which will make them less nervous. Making it familiar and fun will also help. If they can share their passion with you – it will help them feel in control.
Show them previous films you’ve made (maybe)
This will reassure them that you represent people responsibly and people seem relaxed on camera. Though be aware this could backfire. They might not like your stuff. I usually only do this if interviewees ask a lot about what the film will be like. I make them a private bespoke page on my website, add a friendly message to them – and just add films that are most relevant to them.
They don’t have to ‘get it right’
If you’ve found the right person – someone who shares your charities values – they’ll really want to do a good job. They may try to ‘give you want you want’. Explain that all you really want is for them to be present and have fun. Their answers don’t have to be perfect. It’s your responsibility to do the research, know their story, and guide them on the day. They just need to show up.
Give them an out
Though they might be behind the charity, and want to help – this all might end up being too much for some people. You need to make it clear from the very beginning that they own their story and can back away at any time (even after the film goes out, though this would be far from ideal – it is the ethical thing to do). This should be clear to them at every stage of production, as sometimes people’s mindset changes once reality sets in. Unforeseen personal issues could also arise – and they shouldn’t feel pressured to remain locked into the project during stressful times.
Plan your questions
If you’re aiming to have a natural conversation – won’t writing a list of question just get in the way? Well – yes and no. Planning questions in advance will help give your conversation emotional structure, help you internalize themes, and even help you in the edit.
Your questions are a guide, not a script
Their story will have a few different events, themes, characters and emotional beats. Your questions (and the order you ask them) will be your guide through their story – but shouldn’t dictate how the conversation organically unfurls. In fact – it’s better if you don’t even have them whilst you talk (more on that later). Here are some tips for ‘mapping’ out your conversation:
Plan for easy, shallow questions at the beginning. These won’t have much emotional weight and will help set the story’s scene – whilst your subject is still getting used to you.
Group questions into themes
Plan a series of mini conversation, each based on the different area of their story. ‘Being a Mum’, ‘Exercise’, ‘School’ are all little chats you could imagine having with friends. They’ll be a natural order to questions within those themes.
The order will change
People tend to bounce around a little even when explaining a series of events. That’s normal and perfectly fine. They’ll be more on how to deal with this later.
Build up to the deep
Plan to save the more emotionally weighted stuff towards the end of filming – even if it’s about something at the beginning of their story. Your subject needs to trust you enough to be vulnerable and honest.
Try to think of ways into their story that they might not have considered.
Hold their focus
‘Just forget about the camera’
This is the most ridiculous thing I hear said to interviewees. Lights, microphones, cameras – plus extra humans that operate that kit. Even to the most experienced actors can struggle with on set distractions. So your subject will almost certainly definitely find it difficult to relax into a natural conversation. The more reminders they have of the production – the harder it will be for them to be vulnerable, honest and open. I personally choose to solve that problem by using as little equipment as possible – but that might not be appropriate for your project.
But, there are some things you can do to help people relax and focus on having an open conversation with you – even with loads of shiny things pointed at them.
Separate your subject from the kit
You’re about to have some deep chats with the person – so you need to get them comfortable with you as quickly as possible. Do this away from the equipment. Regardless of your location – go to a different space to where filming will take place. Your crew (however big) should set up everything on their own – giving you guys the space to chat. Ideally, they’ve arrived earlier than the subject so there’s not a long fear-inducing wait before you start.
Take them to their happy place
Rather than diving into their story (you’ll want to save this so it’s fresh on camera) talk about other things. What turns them on? Find what they are most passionate about (I’ve talked model trains, grandkids, Harley Davidsons and clowning) – things that they can talk about with ease. If you’re in their environment – get them to show you around. They’ll be clues everywhere to who they are and what they love.
Be super interested – show them that they are worth listening to. Connect with their passions – show them you have a lot in common. They need to know you ‘get’ them – and are on their side. At some point, a crew member can come and give you a nod – showing their ready to start.
Create a seamless transition
Now you’ve got them relaxed and confident – stay with it. Just keep your conversation going as you take them to where the cameras are. Someone could put a mic on them while you talk, and your crew can use this time to make any final audio or lighting tweaks. Give them a couple of minutes to relax into their new environment – it’s still just you guys talking.
Think of the nurse that gets you to talk about your job whilst a scary (yes, they are scary!) injection is happening. Just because it is time to film – you don’t need to ruin the good vibes you’ve created. Everyone in the room should avoid “OK, ready to go’ type statements. Instead, the crew can just start rolling and one of them can tap you on the shoulder. Now you know you’re filming and you can just naturally transition your conversation into your first prepared question.
Don’t read from your notes
OK, so this is a hard one – but really worth getting good at. No natural conversation involves bits of paper with pre-prepared talking points ready to be ticked off. That’s for job interviews – and no-one likes those. Notes are a constant reminder to people that they are being ‘interviewed’. Your priority should be truly connecting with your subject. Keep your eyes on them. Show them you’re listening and transition naturally from one question to the other (More on how to do this later).
Real conversation doesn’t follow a logical order – it actually bounces around quite a bit. You should go with the natural flow of your subject’s responses – and allow yourself the freedom to ask any question you need to. Don’t force the conversation into a structure you have written down.
So are you just going to just wing it then? Nope. Have a series of mini conversations – around each theme that you’ve already planned. You’ll be amazed at how your questions are just in your head. Your subject’s responses will naturally prompt the next question. And you’ll be able to mentally tick off things you know you need to cover. When it feels like you’ve covered everything in that theme, ask them if there’s anything else they would add. Then grab your notes and quickly make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, before moving on.
Create genuine connection
Your subject is already being brave enough to tell their story on camera. So they deserve constant support throughout the whole experience. You support them by truly connecting with them – being a giving interviewer. You need to be an active participant in the conversation – and by that, I mean you need to talk. More than you think.
A real conversation is two way
When we watch most ‘interview’ videos – we are only seeing one half of the conversation. You could be tricked into thinking the interviewer doesn’t really say much. But a great interviewer is constantly feeding the conversation – you just don’t usually see it.
You might think you should keep pretty quiet – because the focus of the film is on them. But for now – they aren’t the focus, the conversation is. If all you do is nod and ask your next question – you’re expecting an awful lot from them. Be the other person in the conversation – a listener and a prompt. Otherwise, they are just monologuing. And a monologue can get awfully close to a performance.
React like the viewer should
You’re telling this person’s story because it’s powerful. Full of surprises, emotions, darkness and light. You want the viewers to feel emotionally connected to the story – to react to it. You are the lucky person who gets to hear the story first hand – so you should react as your viewers will. Be undeniably interested. If your subject makes you laugh… good. The viewers will likely laugh too.
Your reaction lets your subject know their story is connecting with you emotionally – that you are truly with them, in the moment. You are turning an unnatural situation into a natural interaction. You are a boost of confidence.
Give them part of you
Though fairly extrovert, I’m actually quite a private person. Joining the charity sector helped me open up a lot – because there were so many good people around. After a year a couple of my new friends told me I was frustrating. They were telling me about themselves, but I wasn’t giving anything back. I realised I was being a bad friend. I was denying them and myself the opportunity to build a deep connection, because if I wasn’t going to trust them enough to ‘let them in’ why should they do the same?
When I film with people – I often give them bits of my own story that connect with theirs. I’ve told people about breakups, family fallouts, failures and regrets. No matter how different we are – we always have shared human experiences. If someone opens up to you, you’re more likely to reciprocate with your own story. Show your subject this is an equal exchange by giving them part of yourself.
Create the energy you want
“Mike, were you in Liverpool this weekend?”
“You’ve gone all scouse again…”
Humans are born to connect with others. We all are guilty of subconsciously mimicking other people’s body language, speech patterns or accents. Especially when we are with people we like. My FilmKit co-writer Molly flips from Scottish to Irish to English depending on which family member she’s just been on the phone to (yep, it is hilarious).
This phenomenon can be used in your conversation.
You can set the tone. Whatever energy, body languages and words you use – will likely be reflected back at you. If their story is exciting – be excited. Talk loud. Be expressive. Smile a bunch. If you’d like a certain word or phrase – put it in the question – they’ll likely repeat it back to you. Have open, relaxed body language – and they’ll mirror it. Don’t tell people how you need them to be – show them.
Set the tone you’d like from the conversation – right from the beginning. From your very first contact with the subject – even over email. Emojis are your friend 😍
Make the conversation flow
Because you haven’t tethered yourself to your written list of questions – you can allow the conversation to flow naturally. Though remember – you are still guiding the conversation, and there are a few things that can help:
Start easy and build to the hard stuff
You only have one shot at hearing your subject’s story for the first time. Their story is powerful – so you need their telling of it to be as natural as possible. Your subject needs to settle in, feel comfortable and trust you. Start off with some of the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ before challenging them with the ‘whys’.
Know which events in their story will be the more emotional ones and save those for later – even if those events are at the chronological start of their story.
If you need them to introduce themselves, have them do it at the end. Early nerves are particularly obvious when some is awkwardly saying their own name. Other functional things like posing for still images should also be saved to the end – when they’ve gained confidence.
Allow for the unexpected
The unexpected is the only thing that you can guarantee will happen whilst interviewing someone. I’ve found most subjects hold things back even during pre-interviews. Fair enough – they don’t trust you yet. But once you really start a deep conversation, your questions will often trigger them to say something powerful you weren’t expecting. No – you didn’t plan for this but have the confidence to go with them.
Some people are comfortable enough to delve straight into hard-hitting events – and can even get emotional right from the get-go. That’s OK – let them naturally go where they want. Mentally reshuffle your questions – you’ll just revisit your early questions later. Grab the reins and steer your subject back when the time is right. Imagine you’re a sat nav. It’s OK if they go off course because you are there to quickly reroute.
Build in extra time
The best chats with friends in pubs are when you go for ‘one after work’ and burn through six hours without even checking your watch. Great conversation doesn’t have a pre-assigned time limit.
You’ll want to have built in some time for spontaneity. Make it part of your plan. Your subject deserves the time and freedom to tell their story comfortably. This is what you say to your manager when you tell you’ll be gone for the whole day. Tell the subject that you want to make sure they have enough time to get their story told properly. Give them an approximate finishing time, but ask them what they have planned for afterwards – and build in some flexibility. Book an open return train – and pack extra memory cards.
The worst thing that will happen is you spend more time with one of your charity’s most interesting people. The best thing is that they’ll give you much more than you were hoping for – and then invite you to stay for dinner.
Be a transition wizard
Natural conversations don’t abruptly change topics. They originally flow from theme to theme – both people constantly moving things around. Whilst you want to maintain the feeling of this – you will want to guide topics of conversation. Holding on key areas, whilst moving away from tangents and dead-ends, will help focus your conversation. A focused conversation is more useful – and easier to edit.
The trick is to use your active contributions to transition from point to point. Once you know you’d like to move to a new area of conversation:
- Reflect on what they’ve just said – showing they’ve been truly heard
- Give them a personal experience or insight to connect their story to yours – building trust.
Use your contribution to transition to the next question
This could go something like “Wow, I can’t believe how dedicated you are to training. I remember being forced to run when I was in school, and I hated it. If I told my Mum I’d signed up to a marathon she would find it hilarious. What do your family think of what you’re doing?”
This is hard to do naturally – and will take some practice. But you’ll know you’re getting good when at the end of the conversation your subject says ‘Oh, are we done already? That was easy!’. You’ve got everything you need to craft a powerful story – but they just feel they’ve had a nice chat.
Don’t be afraid to steer the ship
Some subjects have a great story – but aren’t very adept at telling it. Unnecessary or irrelevant detail is very common. It’s not your subject’s job to be a good storyteller – but it is your job to guide them (both in person and in the edit) to tell their story effectively.
If you’re subject is giving you stuff you know you are never going to use – it’s OK to jump in and steer them. Reframe the heart of the question if they aren’t getting to it. Repeat the question if it’s been forgotten in a tangent.
This isn’t rude – it’s what happens in normal conversation. However, I do soften this by telling people that their time is valuable to me, I want to do justice to their story – so I might interrupt them at times. People are fine with it. Those who rabbit usually know they do!
As I’ve learnt from my user-generated projects – people don’t usually ask themselves those tough questions that a truly authentic story needs. This is one of the most important roles you have as an interviewer. If a subject is not being truly honest or leaving things out of the story – your viewers will feel it. This will make your story less authentic, and likely less useful to the project.
You’re there to have a real conversation, and that conversation can be made stronger if you challenge your subject into greater introspection. You might see them – truly in the moment – learning something about themselves for the first time. This can be a wonderful, heartfelt moment. Just make sure they’re ready for it.
Your aim is to push them a little, without seeming pushy. Some things to bear in mind:
Take your time
You might get the sense that they aren’t ready to go deep just yet. Guide your conversation in a different direction, then come back to it later. Build their conference and gain their trust with an easier topic. You can then approach the subject from from a different angle.
Don’t accept a shallow answer
You want your subject to tell you how they truly felt as events unfurled. If you get a sense that they are going through the motions – reframe your question in a deeper way. For example, “I’m sure his diagnosis was a surprise to him – but often it’s the partners of people that feel these things more immediately. What was the first thought that came to your mind?”
Offer a different perfective perspective – inspiring them to reflect on events in a new way.
Lower your guard, and they’ll lower theirs
Admitting uncomfortable truths about yourself is very hard. Reliving painful moments is too. Unfortunately – these are the very things that you’re asking your subject to do – to authentically tell their story. If you’ve done your research – you’ll have an idea about what those things are.
Many people are understandably resistant to opening up. But you can push a little – so long as they can see that your ‘tricky question’ comes from a good place – connection, empathy and genuine curiosity. You can even acknowledge that the question you’re asking is difficult – giving them permission to struggle with it.
If I feel someone is guarded, I’ll make myself vulnerable to them. I’ll share some difficult things about myself. The more you lower your guard, the more likely they are to take down theirs. Yes, This does require some bravery on your part.
If something feels off, it probably is
Often you just get the ‘feeling’ that they aren’t being completely honest with you. There’s something there that they just aren’t saying. This could be because they’ve never had anyone interested in this part of their life. They could be afraid to say something out loud, because that would be admitting something is up. Or maybe they just don’t trust you yet. There is one thing that can help here – time. A lot of time.
Though we all want to appear fully-formed and ‘together’ – we are really all a bundle of inconsistencies. Doctors smoke. Vets eat meat. Anti-capitalists rant from their iPhones. What we say isn’t always in line with how we behave. We create our own justifications for these inconsistencies – to appear well rounded. Our world-views are usually challenged not by ourselves, but by the people around us. If we trust them, we’ll listen and be more open to self-reflection.
So if your subject has contradicted themselves – in their actions or words – point it out. In a nice way! You’re not trying to create a ‘gotcha’ moment – you’re trying to better understand the grey areas that make them complex and unique. Through doing that your content will be richer, as it will reflect the nuance of their personality and hopefully be grounded in authenticity.