Asking Probing Interview questions:
Simply adapt to your subject

Okay, you’re ready to begin videotaping your documentary and have a long list of both experts and citizens with a stake in the issue. Now you job as either host or interviewer is to ask the right questions so that you get compelling responses that will support the storyline of your production. Here’s some solid advice that will work whether your interview subject is a scientist telling you about pollution or a housewife expressing her concerns about the impacts on her family.

First, remember that the basic foundations of any interview are establishing the essentials of the story - setting, characters, conflict-resolution, overcoming challenges, fear-confidence and personal discovery. From that list, focus on the 6-W’s of any story – What, When, Where, Why, Who, and hoW.  The secret to asking revealing questions is to ask about the subject’s “feelings and emotions” and to ask the subject to tell you a story full of details. These details should be rich in what we can’t see on the video – stuff we wouldn’t know unless you told us. There’s a big difference between…”I closed the discharge pipe”… or, “We stop contaminating the river with 300 gallons a day of toxic waste that contained class A carcinogens.” So with that said, here are some possible questions to adapt to your interviews. Don’t barrage your subject with all of them – simply pick and choose the exact ones that best fit the person and their slant on the story.

One final piece of advice before the questions begin and the camera rolls. Remain flexible during your interview and let the person being interviewed go where they want. Pay attention to their emotions as the story unfolds and when you see new information appear that deserves attention, shift gears and refocus your questions on the heart of the story.

What – happened here ( again, pre-empt with “tell me a story about…what happened?”

  1. What was your involvement in this and why?
  2. What doubts did you have about your role in what happened?
  3. What secrets did you know that might have made a difference on how things turned out?
  4. What mistakes did you make that might have affected this issue?
  5. What special technique did you use to help and why?
  6. What have you learned that others might not know about this issue?
  7. What made you feel good about your role in this issue?
  8. What was your greatest weakness that contributed to the way things turned out?
  9. What was your greatest strength that made a difference in the outcome?
  10. What weaknesses in others affected the outcome?
  11. What strengths in others made a difference and how?
  12. What was the happiest moment of this entire event? (and why)
  13. What was the scariest moment? (and why)
  14. What was the saddest or most disappointing moment? (and why)
  15. What was the funniest moment and why?
  16. What would your parents say if they had been part of this and why?
  17. What would you have done differently if you could and why?

When – relative to history, setting, place and events – through storytelling

  1. Tell me a story about the history of this place.
  2. Tell me a story about your parents or grandparent’s impacts here.
  3. Tell me about any previous encounters you had with this place or issue.
  4. Tell me about your past experience in these kinds of issues.
  5. When did this issue begin and when will it end?
  6. When did you first see or hear about this issue  tell me the whole story of what happened?
  7. Tell me about the time of year, weather, temperature and conditions that impacted what happened?

Where – place, location, stand, quarry

  1. Where is this place or event located in the state and what’s the country like?
  2. Why is this place special? Do you have an emotional connection? Explain why.
  3. Where is this place or event located relative to other important features nearby?
  4. Where was the (pollution) coming from and why?
  5. Where was it headed for and with what impact?
  6. Where did you come from to get here and where do you return to when you leave?
  7. Where did you work before you came here and where might you go next?

Why – did you do this?

  1. Why did you get involved in this issue?
  2. Why did you use the technique?
  3. Why didn’t you use a less or more risky method?
  4. Why did you pass on getting more involved?
  5. Why didn’t you wait longer before getting involved?
  6. Why did you wait so long before getting involved?
  7. Why did you wait so long before giving up?

Who – others past, present, future

  1. Who was with you when this event happened?
  2. Who do you wish was with you and why?
  3. Who do you wish had not been there and why?
  4. Who else has faced this challenge before?
  5. Who helped contribute to your success and how?
  6. Who can you blame for messing things up?

hoW – details of the story

  1. How have you changed as a scientist-person in the past 5 years?
  2. How does this event or issue affect the quality of your life?
  3. How does this issue or event compare to similar ones in your life?
  4. How did it make you feel when realized your role in this event?
  5. How does your family feel about your role in this?
  6. How will you enjoy your accomplishments in this issue?
  7. How will you preserve the memories of this event?
  8. How do you feel at the end of the day working on this issue/event?
  9. How do you think others see you as a professional?
  10. How do you see yourself?
  11. How do you want others to see you as a professional?


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