Skype Interview Tips for Live TV
Most live TV interviews over Skype look awful. Incredibly intelligent researchers, professors and business leaders frequently have their insight undermined by low quality video and unfortunate framing that leaves audiences staring up their noses instead of listening to what they have to say. Nevertheless, the demands of 24-hour cable news and the availability of the right guest at the right time have meant cable news networks and international broadcasters have increasingly turned to live Skype video interviews.
The thing is, Skype and other live video conferencing platforms are actually kind of amazing and more than a little revolutionary in the realm of multimedia communications. Not too long ago, a live interview with someone in another city would require traveling to a dedicated studio with either satellite or fiber uplink capabilities and then a team of people on both ends to coordinate IFB, uplinks and other details. It also cost thousands of dollars for three-to-five minutes of airtime and still does because this is still how most remote, live TV interviews are coordinated. Skype and similar services remove the need for all that infrastructure. All you need is a guest with a computer or even a smartphone.
Those Skype video interviews don’t have to look awful either. The quality has only a little bit to do with the platform itself and more to do with the technical setup. To work with certain international broadcasters or lower budget operations in the past, I would set up the guest in the same studio we would use for a live satellite or fiber interview and then using something like the Blackmagic Web Presenter, route that final studio interview over Skype. Without fail, I could hear producers’ jaws drop on the other end of the phone when we connected because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing over Skype. Was it as stable as a satellite or fiber feed? No, but it got us 80% of the way there for a fraction of the money. For the PR professional, that also means producers are going to reach out to my team more often for interviews because they know they’ll get an amazing video feed with studio quality video and audio in no time at all.
You don’t need a studio either. I have also worked with experts who frequently speak with the media to set up home Skype stations so they can conduct high quality interviews from their home during the evenings or early mornings as well. They didn’t have a studio, but by integrating a few of the Skype interview tips and setups I describe below, they were able to ensure a much higher quality Skype video interview on network television time and time again.
[NOTE: All these tips apply for facetime and other platforms as well, but Skype has been much more aggressive in marketing to TV networks and therefore more successful in integrating its system with major TV newsrooms. That includes supporting integrated hardware for stations and long term branding and reputation strategies.]
THE BEST LIGHTING FOR SKYPE INTERVIEWS
One reason for the poor video quality associated with Skype interviews has to do with the shortcomings of your webcam. Whether using a computer webcam or a smartphone camera, the small sensors of these cameras deliver notoriously noisy and low quality video. The reason for that is light. They need A LOT of light to perform their best and when they don’t get it, they make up for it by raising their ISO (light sensitivity setting), which in turn degrades the video quality and introduces too much noise. The solution then is simple. We add good light.
The best lighting for Skype interviews is similar to the lighting you would see in studio, but it does not need to be anywhere near as complex. Simply place a continuous light on a light stand on either side of your computer and diffuse the light through a photographic umbrella and the video quality of your Skype interview will improve by 100–200% immediately. You can pick up a super simple video lighting kit. The cost is negligible, but the difference in the quality of your video will be night and day.
Video needs light, so the more you can provide, the better your video will look. You can also try something like a ring light, popular with YouTube vloggers because of the flattering, even light it provides. If you don’t have access to lights or your guest refuses to set them up, you can also place lamps on either side of the computer and use the lampshades as diffusers. The result will not be as consistent, but the more light you can provide, the better the feed will look.
LIVE TV INTERVIEW FRAMING
Framing is another place many people fall short when it comes to their live Skype interviews. Without someone on set to help them frame properly, people too frequently tilt their laptop screen back, resulting in that perspective that looks right up their nose. Sometimes a producer at the network will walk the guest through it, but many have become resigned to expect this angle.
For proper framing, first do whatever you need to do to get the webcam at eye level. Then imagine a tic-tac-toe board over the video screen. This is what we refer to as the rule of thirds in composition. Align your head between the two vertical lines and then align your eyes with the top horizontal bar. Leave only a sliver of space between the top of your head and the top of the frame. This is the ideal framing for an interview, although a producer may ask you to adjust it based on how they’re framing for the broadcast as well. If you’ve set up properly, that will most likely just mean moving closer or further away, though.
AUDIO IS THE SECRET TO GREAT VIDEO
Viewers can forgive low video quality, but they cannot accept low audio quality. This is another place where computer and smartphone microphones often fall short. They’re great for quick conference calls, but the microphones are designed to pick up all the sound in the room, not just the person in front of the camera.
To improve your audio, you need to plug in a separate microphone. You don’t need to spend a fortune either. There’s no shortage of low cost lavalier microphones on the market and while they may not provide studio quality sound, they will offer a dramatic improvement over the built in microphone. Depending on your computer and/or smartphone, you may need to use a simple adapter to connect the microphone to the computer properly (just make sure they provide the 1.5volts of pass through power some microphones require). Then don’t forget to go into Skype’s preferences and select that microphone as your audio source. Skype won’t always do it automatically.
STAGE YOUR BACKGROUND FOR SKYPE VIDEO CALLS
One you have great light, proper framing and good audio, it’s time to look behind you. Guests too often forget this step and the result is viewers staring in amazement at their messy office or living room decor choices instead of listening to what they have to say. No one is expecting a full studio background (although trust me, that’s nice), but mind the mess and eliminate as many distractions as possible. Maybe that means cleaning up or even consider turning the camera slightly to frame a different part of the room. The best background for Skype interview calls should be complementary, not distracting.
Some companies who have employees regularly appear on network TV over Skype (I can think of several universities immediately that do this) have had branded backdrops printed that can hang behind the guest during the interview. This sometimes works, but be sure to test it beforehand. Webcam’s are usually exceptionally wide angle, which means to use a backdrop like that properly, it would need to be huge. And if it is huge and awkward to set up, the guest is more likely to leave it in the closet when the time comes for their interview.
MITIGATE SHORTCOMINGS OF INTERNET BANDWIDTH
Lighting, audio, framing and background are all elements of a good Skype video interview that can be improved with some simple equipment and consideration. The one remaining element is far less flexible. Skype and other video conferencing calls require a lot of Internet bandwidth. Many Internet services also only offer limited upload speeds, something else important for video calls. Skype will adjust depending on your Internet connection, but that generally means downgrading quality, something we’re trying to avoid. Here are a few quick tips to squeezing the most out of your Internet bandwidth for a video call:
Connect via ethernet. Wifi is great for Internet browsing or watching videos, but a two-way Internet call will tax that signal, especially if other people are using it. Plugging in directly to the Internet ensures a more stable connection.
If you have an option, aim for 720p streaming. 1080p is nice, but few connections will stream it properly for a video call. A strong 720p feed will look better on TV than a bad 1080p stream.
Close every other program on your computer. You want to preserve as much bandwidth as possible for the Skype call itself. If other people are sharing the connection, ask them to limit video streaming, uploads or any other activity that consumes a lot of bandwidth.
If all else fails, opt for a better Internet connection. I have coordinated network TV interviews using the setups described above and a simple webcam that look and sound almost as good as a studio interview at a fraction of the cost. Pair this setup with something like a Google Fiber Internet connection and you will be wowing every network news producer you connect with. Again, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but by considering these simple Skype interview tips, your computer based video interviews can immediately go from amateur to professional looking overnight.