A customer testimonial is a great way to signal to potential clients that your product or service is trusted by their peers. You can do this with a text quote on your website, but a video of the customer is exponentially more effective. Humans are obsessed with human faces. The next time you watch a video, pay attention to the part of the screen you're looking at. If there is a face in the shot, you're almost definitely looking at it. Now, if that face happens to be a peer of yours (or a competitor) who deals with the same challenges as you do, and they have found a solution to your problems, you're going to listen to the words coming out of that face. This is the purpose of the customer testimonial video. Now let's talk about how to shoot one.
This guide will be a jumping off point for shooting any testimonial, or "talking head" interview. These rules aren't set in stone, but break them at your own peril. I'm not going to go into depth about three point lighting or the 180 degree rule here. Better folks than I have already covered those topics all over the internet. This will be more like a broad checklist of things to remember about setting up and conducting an interview shoot, and why they matter. At the end of this article I'll post a link to a quick reference guide that you can take with you on your next testimonial video shoot. For additional tips on talking heads, check out The One-Two Punch.
Interview with the vampire (or: talking to no one)
When I first started shooting talking heads, I didn't think much about the interviewer. I would set up the mic and the lights and tape a mark on the floor for the victim, and then stand behind the camera and hope for the best. As I shot more interviews I learned that the quality of material you get from the subject is very much dependent on the person asking the questions. A good interviewer can break someone out of their shell, or calm down an overly animated interviewee (don't worry, its a word. I looked it up). One of the biggest mistakes I see interviewers make is failing to keep eye contact with the subject. Often the interviewer has a list of questions on a piece of paper, and is tempted to just stare down at it, rattling off questions and hoping to get through this thing without any human interaction. The result is that the interview subject has no where to look, and nothing to focus on. Their eyes will drift around the room, two drowning sailors desperate for something to hold on to. This is no good. Someone watching this interview later will find this person flighty, and hard to trust. Unless you're shooting with a teleprompter, always do your subject (and the final viewer) the courtesy of making eye contact.
Look, over there!
Every year I help out some friends with at least one short narrative film. We're always tweaking the set to make sure the story is as focussed as possible and distractions are eliminated. We flag lights to eliminate reflections, remove an odd red vase that pulls too much attention in the scene. It makes all the sense in the world when you're shooting actors, and shooting interviews is no different. You want the viewer focussed on the face of the person you're asking them to trust, not on the blazing sun exploding through the window behind them. Put your subject against a background that doesn't distract from the story. Unless you are going to wrap the building in ND film, that probably means avoiding windows. Also, make sure there is plenty of distance between your subject and whatever that background is. Depending on your camera and lens choices, this will give you the best chance of some depth of field separating the subject from the background, thus forcing your viewer to pay attention to the in-focus talky parts, and not the tipped over books on the shelf in the background.
Probably the most noticeable difference between a professional video and an amateur one is the sound, and the most important variable for sound is mic placement. Whether you have a high end lavalier mic or you are stuck with the on-camera situation, you want that mic as close to your subject's face as possible. Check your levels to make sure you're getting something usable, shut off the HVAC, close the door, and remove any other background noise.
Heat 'em up
Lights are another giant differentiator between a professional production and a amateur one. Luckily these days, LED lights are cheap (and not hot) and even one well-placed light can make a big difference. A basic three point lighting setup is mapped out on the quick reference sheet. If you only have one or two lights, use them in order of importance listed there (1 = most important, 3 = least). If you don't have lights, try to avoid overhead lighting and direct sunlight. Look for diffused light from a shaded window, or bouncing off a light colored wall.
While a little light in the eyes is about the best thing ever for making your subject look human and drawing the focus of the viewer, glare on the glasses is the worst. Get your lights up high to avoid making ugly reflections on the lenses. Also look out for windows, or other people in the room reflecting back at the camera.
Unless your customer is moonlighting on the nightly news, talking in front of a camera is probably not commonplace. Nervous people and people in front of bright lights can get thirsty. Have some water handy, and make sure they use it if they need it.
Did you see how you were framing back there?
Bonus points if you can name the MST3K episode that quote is from. Properly framing your subject's face is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it will keep the viewer's eye engaged in the scene. Use the rule of thirds, and try to get their outside eye to land on the upper right or left third. Also, pull focus on the eyes. This is similar to the rule about making eye contact with the subject. If the speaker's eyes are out of focus, the viewer will have nothing to hold on to. If you focus on one thing in the frame, make it the subjects eyes.
Stand and deliver
Even people with the best intentions will eventually slouch if you put them in a chair for an interview. Keep your subject on their feet, or if they must sit, try to find a high top chair or bar stool. Forcing decent posture on your subject will make them look like a human on camera and it will also keep them engaged.
Along with these tips I have also included some basic questions on the quick reference guide to get your interview started, as well as some lines for you to fill in your own follow ups (these lines are only on the print version, I'm no app developer). Your first question should always be, "Can you sign this release form?"After that, one popular format for customer testimonial videos is the "problem and solution" style. You ask the customer, "What problem were you having before you started using this product?" And follow up with, "How has the product solved your problem?" Try to avoid having them mention the product (ie. the solution) until you get to that question. Your editor will thank you.