Interview Tips from a Journalist
Chatting with someone you’ve just met in a casual setting can be nerve-wracking, let alone an interview scenario where the issue is a little contentious and there’s more at play than simply keeping your wits about you. Even during a straightforward interview, journalists are looking for a hook for their story, which can lead to some sticky questions.
The media often gets a bad rap for misquoting or writing false statements, but the truth is, unless your interviewer works for Star Magazine or The National Enquirer, it’s highly unlikely that they will write something completely unfounded. What is likely, however, is that you’ll say something you didn’t really mean to say and regret it after. As a former journalist, I used a number of techniques to try and draw out information on tricky subject matters. Here are some tips so that you don’t get stuck in the mud.
Most PR firms will put together a briefing document that outlines information about the publication, the journalist and purpose of the interview. If you do nothing else, read the briefing document. Preparation won’t get you out of every trick question (PR pros can’t read minds unfortunately), but it will help you breeze through the little stuff, which in turn will give you the confidence you need to handle any curve balls.
Don’t Give the PR Spiel
Nothing annoys a journalist quite like a robotic interviewee who harps on about the company’s key messages. They have requested your time because they think you have something valuable to offer. And you do. You can get your messages in, while still making it conversational. If you keep it natural, they’ll be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, should things go awry.
Beware the Run Around
If the interviewee is talking away from or avoiding a topic, journalists will rephrase and draw them back to it. Repeatedly. Eventually, most people cave. If you really don’t want to talk about a particular subject and subtle evasion isn’t working, politely ask the journalist to move on. Otherwise, you’ll dance around the issue all day or you’ll end up giving them an answer that you don’t like.
If Unsure, Keep it “Off the Record”
A good journalist will make you feel at ease pretty quickly and hopefully, the interview will run more like a conversation and less like an interrogation. However, don’t let good banter lull you into a false sense of security. Even if you have developed a good relationship with a reporter, remember to keep all confidential information off the record.
Master the Art of Silence
Silence is awkward and journalists use that to their advantage. Extended pauses can feel like hours when you’re chatting to someone you don’t know and the gut reaction for most people is to fill the gap. Don’t. If you’re finished speaking, pause and wait for the next question. While it may feel like you should cut through the silence, the moment will pass. I promise.
It’s Not How You Say It, It’s What You Say
The written word and spoken word can be very different. Something as simple as ‘thanks’ can be said with a number of inflections to hold different meanings and quotes can be misconceived. To avoid the “I didn’t mean it like that” follow up conversation, take your time and think before you speak.
Remember Journalists Are People Too
If you are worried something was taken out of context and would like to clarify, follow up afterward. Explaining you weren’t supposed to mention a particular topic and offering them the interview when you are ready to speak publicly will usually do the trick. While you won’t always be able to change your statement, most journalists will hear you out at the very least.