Lesson Plans

Six Tips for Strong Interviews

Screenshot from the film, "Placing Identity," which was produced by journalism students at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, NC. United States, 2018.


Students will be able to describe and practice methods for planning, conducting and editing interviews for original documentary films that hightlight underreported issues in their communities.

Warm up:

On your own, or with a partner, make a list of the information you would need to prepare for and conduct a successful interview with your principal about upcoming plans for the school year. Use the table below to guide your brainstorm:

To do before the interview

To do during the interview

To do after the interview






A good interviewer is someone who makes it look easy. But don’t be fooled.

A great interview is the result of strategic planning, active listening, and strong attention to what needs to happen in the moments you share with your subject. Below are tips used by journalism students at R.J. Reynolds High School while creating the original film, “Placing Identity,” which examines how a person’s access to opportunity is impacted by his/her/their environment.


Good crews formulate strong questions like a cook organizes a list of ingredients they need before going back to the kitchen. Not only will you need to know who the person you will be talking to and what they do, you also need to know why they are important to the story.

For example, while researching the film “Placing Identity,” students from R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, NC visited a homeless shelter. They asked to visit the shelter because they had uncovered in their research that Winston-Salem was home to a growing number of families living in shelters.

Homelessness is broad in scope, but students narrowed their focus and arrived ready to get what they needed for the film they had in mind. They created questions centered on what it’s like having kids at the shelter. They asked shelter residents about how children felt about living in the shelter. They also asked about how living in the shelter impacts the school routines and social lives of kids.

Exercise: Make a list of at least five topics to research before sitting down with your principal for an interview. What should you know before starting the interview, and how will you find this information?

Interview Tip 2: Make a list of open-ended questions

Understanding the difference between open and closed questions is crucial for effective interviewing. Take the following pairs of questions. In each pair, which question is open and which question is closed?

1. What year did you move to North Carolina?

2. What made you decide to move to North Carolina?


1. Does your job pay minimum wage?

2. Tell me about living on minimum wage.

In each pair, what is different about the results each question is likely to garner?

Exercise: Imagine again that you have the opportunity to interview your principal. Make a list of open-ended questions that you could ask to learn more about what your principal has planned for the school year.

Exercise: Team up into twos and practice asking questions in a closed and open-ended way. The interview questions can be on any topic, but here are some suggested topics:

  • Family history
  • Feelings about the upcoming school year
  • Issues facing the community

Interview Tip 3: Connect with the person you are interviewing

Listen to Brandon Stanton (Creator of Humans of New York) explain his interviewing style and take notes on the methods he suggests for getting someone to open up on camera.

Interview Tip 4: Setting up the Interview

At the interview, it’s crucial to be intentional in establishing atmosphere:

  1. Prior to your subject’s arrival, set up the atmosphere of the space for ideal sound and lighting quality. Make the space as inviting as possible.
  2. When your interviewee shows up, introduce yourself and shake hands before beginning.
  3. Your job is to make them at ease. However, still keep in mind that as the interviewer, you are the director of the conversation, so don’t be afraid to rearrange seats, readjust microphones, or ask your subject to repeat any statements.

Interview Tip 5: Getting Answers You Can Use

  1. It’s a common practice to interrupt an interviewee if the subject left out an important part or did not give a complete sentence. You can always say, “I’d like to stop right here for a second, and can you repeat what you said using a complete sentence?” An example of this is answering with “I live in Beverly Hills,” as opposed to just stating “Beverly Hills.”
  2. Make sure to stay silent while your subject is speaking. Control your impulse to respond with sounds like yes, no, uh-huh.
  3. Nod and give strong eye contact to let your subject understand you are paying close attention.
  4. At the end of the interview, don’t forget to ask, “Is there anything you would like to share that we didn’t get to today?”
  5. Generally speaking, filmmakers prefer to avoid narration. Better than having a narrator tell you there are 57% of students on free or reduced lunch, ask the school cafeteria worker what the numbers are. By asking the cafeteria worker to use complete sentences, the filmmaker can avoid narration.

Listen to high school journalism student Hill Douglas discuss his experience interviewing residents of the local homeless shelter discussed earlier in the lesson. 

Interview Tip 6: Transcribe Your Interviews

Once you’ve conducted the interview, transcribe it so that your collaborators can read it over and identify the key parts to include. Then, highlight those key parts for your editor, who will find the clips you want in the audio recording and cut them for your story.

The students at R.J. Reynolds High School used the website TEMI to transcribe Mp3 or Mp4 files. Below is an example of a transcript and the way students select/highlight materials to pull for their film segment.

Screenshot of an interview transcription used by journalism students at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, NC to plan the film "Placing Identity." United States, 2018.

Bonus Tip: Conducting Interviews with the Public

Person on the street interviews are a classic device used in journalism. For "Placing Identity," students created an interview interstitial segment to effectively weave the film together. In the following clip, Fleet Wilson interviewed Kaprekia Long, a high school student, about her identity and gender. Wilson knew that one of the film crews in his class was filming a segment about LEAD Girls of NC, a teen program for at-risk girls. This clip, while short, provided a perfect segue into the longer piece about LEAD Girls of NC.

Exercise: Imagine that you are planning to use a sit-down interview with your principal to create a story about new plans for the upcoming school year. Create a plan for short public interviews that you can do to support that story using the table below:

Who will you interview?

What will you ask?






Educator Notes: 

The lesson plan above was developed to support "Placing Identity," a three-week documentary filmmaking project for high school journalism students at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. Click here to see how students applied these skills to the development of the original film, "Placing Identity." For more information on interviewing skills that you can present to your class, here is a Powerpoint presentation we used for Placing Identity:

For more information about “Placing Identity,” and other Pulitzer Center education projects, contact education@pulitzercenter.org

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