We’ve all seen an awkward interview, whether it’s Jeremy Paxman grilling a slippery politician or Quentin Tarantino threatening to ‘shut down’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy (well worth another watch, by the way).
But outside of the celebrity and political pressure cookers, how do interviews work? What are interviews like? And what are reporters looking for?
The key point to remember about the press – which covers print, online, broadcast, mainstream, national, trade, vertical and so on – is that it’s their job to tell a story that their audience cares about.
So, if you know what their audience cares about, you can most likely have a compelling conversation that will result in good coverage.
Of course, each reporter also has their own style. But it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be involved in a hostile interview. As long as you’re well prepared, most interviews will be a very positive experience for both sides.
Before the interview, you need to develop your messages. This first requires you to know your audience. Who is the reporter? What is their level of technical understanding? Have they covered this topic before? Who will be reading their work?
Next, consider your own responsibilities. Do you need to do any research to get up to speed? Does your own opinion match your company position? Do you need to tailor your message to the reporter’s audience?
If you can get into a routine and answer these questions before an interview, you will already have done most of the hard work.
An acronym I like to use is that reporters want you to keep it REAL:
Your comments must be Relevant to their story and bring something new to the table.
Be prepared to Educate if you’re discussing issues that require technical knowledge that the reporter is unlikely to have. Their audience may be in the same boat.
Prepare some Anecdotes that you can turn to. Stories, examples and case studies can provide reporters with the soundbites they need to make a story come to life.
Always Listen carefully to questions. Treat each one as an opportunity and remember that there are no bad questions, only bad answers.
Stay in control
With your preparation complete, you should now focus on delivering your messages during the interview. Of course, you should allow conversation to flow – it’s not an interrogation after all. But whether the interview is in person or on the phone, live or recorded, make sure you direct the conversation towards your key messages.
A classic technique is to tell a reporter what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them.
It sounds laughable, but it does work to keep you focussed. However, with a bit of experience and confidence you can move towards a more sophisticated approach. Ideally, you should make a claim, back it up with proof points and examples, and then explain why the reporter, and their audience, should care.
This level of focus means you can avoid commenting on topics outside your own area of expertise. And while the press loves a strong opinion, you should make sure your messages align with your company’s.
Build a bridge
If you do find yourself in an awkward situation during an interview, a technique that can help you stay on track and limit the chances of any mistakes is bridging.
During your preparation you should come up with some key messages that you want to include in your answers. Even during the most difficult sections of an interview, your messages should allow you to take control of the conversation and bridge to a more comfortable situation.
These are typically statements that start with:
What’s actually most important here is…
Let’s focus on the issue at hand…
What you really need to know is…
Think of it like feeding sharks from an island. The island is your key messages. It’s safe, comfortable and you’re familiar with it. But occasionally you have to swim out to feed the sharks – in this case, answer a reporter’s question. Once you’ve fed the sharks, you want to use the bridging technique to get back to the safety of your island as soon as you can.
This method can also be used to combat some techniques that sharky reporters may turn to, such as asking you to comment on false facts or hypotheticals, or machine gun-style multi-part questions that are meant to unsettle you.