Prepare for an interview
By: Andrea Brunais Andrea@ink-inc.tv
Published: February 2006
Did you know you shouldn’t repeat back a negative word a reporter includes in their question during an interview? Andrea Brunais media-relations trainer and co-author of the forthcoming book, I See Your Name Everywhere, tells us “a reporter will almost always feed you a word they wish for you to repeat back in your answer. That way they can quote you making the judgment call rather then undertaking the rhetorical acrobatics it will require to do it themselves while still conveying proper journalistic objectivity.” This is just one of the great tips Andrea provides in this article focused on the art of preparing for a media interview.
No reporter can turn in a story without having done an interview or interviews. Print stories need quotes from the people involved; broadcast stories need soundbites. Reporters will make judgments about you based on how you handle the interview. The public will draw conclusions based on what you say and how you say it.
Psychological research shows that people draw more information from your tone of voice and even from your body language and they do from your actual words. Even if the interview does not involve a media crisis, self-interest still dictates that you not waste a reporter's time or create a bad impression. To paraphrase a title about old age, interviews are not for sissies. Be prepared.
Make sure your content is sharp and to the point. You can do this by anticipating a reporter's questions. Ask the reporter what the story is about. If the subject is, say, how your community spends its charity dollars, and you work for a nonprofit agency, expect questions about your agency's budget and clientele. Be ready with numbers, such as how many people you serve each year, and with facts, such as where those populations are based. Also have stories to tell that play up your agency's mission. Come up with a human-interest anecdote, and the reporter will almost certainly bite.
Eliminate jargon and keep sentences short because complex ideas are best explained in short, simple sentences, advises Jane Praeger, a speech coach on the faculty of Columbia University. An expert in strategic communications, Praeger also recommends keeping sentence construction simple (subject-verb-object) and speaking in images that create pictures in people's minds.
Here’s a trick of the trade: When talking with print reporters, speak slowly enough for them to take notes. Do not be disconcerted because they are writing down what you say. Repeat your main points during the interview. To deal effectively with an on-camera reporter, keep your answers relatively short – more crisp and punchy. The average sound bite may run less than 20 seconds. The camera can literally flatten you, so protect extra energy to convey commitment and feeling.
The key to effective preparation is preparing your messages. Make a list of the most important points you would like the reporter to grasp. He or she is the person who will filter your story to the public. When sitting down to write, he or she will be faced with myriad quotations and facts. You want what you have said to remain top of the mind. Across all but the most vital three messages off of your list. If possible, work with only two.
In deciding on your main messages, think of TV commercials and other messages beamed at you throughout the day. Which do you remember? Those with compelling images, emotional content and a main message. Advertising agencies don't make millions by being all over the map. They focus, focus, focus. So can you. Avoid the temptation to explain everything about your organization, provide exhaustive lists of facts, dwell on history or release documents designed only to make powerful board members or officials look good. If you are laboring under the directives of bosses who don't understand this strategy, arrange for them to be media trained.
The art of bridging will take you far. You should always endeavor to answer a reporter's question to the extent that you can. However, your goal is to leave your audiences with recall of your key messages. You need to repeat your two to three main points during the interview. Bridge phrases will allow you to do this.
After you have answered the reporter's question directly and briefly or explained why you cannot, immediately transition back to your key messages. Do this with phrases that become turning points. For example, "let me just add." Or "that's a vital point because…” Even "what is most important for your viewers (or readers) to understand is…” These bridge phrases allow you to turn the conversation back to the points you deem most important. You can come up with bridge phrases of your own.
On TV, appearance counts. Because innocent mannerisms can make you seem evasive or worse, you need to give appearance and body language some thought before going on camera. Media professionals wear powder on camera because hot lights make the skin shine in an unflattering, distracting way. The look of sweat can also make it seem as though the reporter has struck a nerve or put you on the hot seat. Apply powder in a shade that matches your skin tone before going on camera. It's okay to ask the reporter if you look too oily before starting the interview. He or she is well accustomed to this question.
Wear solid-color clothing, avoiding colorful prints or plain white. Women should avoid jewelry that is to dangly or flashy. Hair should frame the face, not distract from the message. Your wardrobe should reflect where you work or the image you are trying to portray.
Keep your body language open. Pay attention and look engaged. Don't fidget or swivel around in your chair or cross your arms. This behavior can make you seem nervous or defensive.
Be assertive and direct, and frame your answers in a positive way. Speak in complete thoughts. Do not allow yourself to be drawn off on tangents. Take control of your nerves, or you are likely to forget your key messages.
Ignore the camera or any other distraction. Speak to the reporter. Imagine you are speaking to an audience of one single person such as your Aunt Bess. This exercise will help you relax and connect with the audience.
If you expect to represent your organization repeatedly on camera, seek media training. Anyone who has trained organization executives to face the cameras has seen their engaging, confident, vibrant, articulate pupils suddenly become passive, self-conscious and tongue-tied. Or, worse, arrogant and cocky. Just the idea of being in front of the cameras can turn someone who’s normally the master of the great first impression into a scared rabbit or a know-it-all SOB. If you’re trying to disarm the TV audience, you are courting disaster if you don’t rehearse while cameras are running. On-camera practice will put you at ease.
Plan what to do if you feel distressed during the interview. A number of steps can help you get a past an uncomfortable moment and turn a potential blunder into a score. If you freeze for any reason, ask the reporter to repeat the question. This will give you more time to organize a response. If you don't have all the information at hand to respond fully, feel free to immediately turn to your staff or others within the organization to provide details. Reporters won't resent interruptions if it means they leave the interview with all of the information they need to write their stories.
If you have had advance notice of the interview, you might want to have charts and graphs on hand or a list of bullet points to help educate the reporter on the topic. Do not load him or her down with annual reports, articles embedded in thick magazines or hundreds of pages of computer printouts unless they've requested all that. (The exception to this is when you are compelled to release information you hope the reporter won't find, in which case you bury it in hundreds if not thousands of pages. Do not try this tactic without professional help.)
Unless you are on live TV, if you are really unhappy with the way you have begun to answer a question, simply stop. It's fine to start over because the tape will be edited back at the studio. This tactic may not work with a print reporter, who may choose your original phrasing over the version you have attempted to refine. If you start out on the wrong foot with a print reporter, it's better to say something like, "wait, what I said is not quite accurate. A more accurate way to describe the situation is…" Stress the word "accurate," which will force the reporter into a shady ethical area if he or she prefers your earlier rendition.
Be relaxed, flexible and spontaneous. Given all of the preparation you have done for the interview, you may be tempted to stick to a canned response. Don't. Canned responses are deadly. They communicate your inability to think on your feet. They also imply that you are so uptight about the situation that you fear speaking about it in a normal way. That posture hardly conveys a confident attitude.
The reporter is interviewing you because you have information in your brain or at your fingertips. You are the authority, the source. You have mastery of the subject. This will come across the more you can relax and be yourself.
Some media trainers recommend a slight pause before answering a question on tape. A rush to answer sometimes seems too push-button, as though you could not wait to spill out your programmed response. Pausing also conveys the image that you are considering the question, even though through careful preparation you know exactly the message you intend to convey.
Never repeat the negative word or phrase that may show up in a reporter's question. A reporter will almost always feed you a word they wish for you to repeat back in your answer. That way they can quote you making the judgment call rather then undertaking the rhetorical acrobatics it will require to do it themselves while still conveying proper journalistic objectivity.
Answer questions in complete thoughts, but frame those thoughts in your own words.
Remember that the interview is a business transaction, and exchange of information is the goal. In most cases the reporter is not out to get you. He or she is merely doing her job. Your job is to position yourself or your institution to come across in ways that best further your mission.
Preparation plus polish equals control. The interview is not an exercise to be feared but rather a process to help reach the public with an accurate image of your organization.
Skilled, confident communicators are a joy to watch. They convey emotion and resist the news reporter or anchor's attempts to steer them into unpleasant places. With spontaneity, they speak directly to the question asked. Then, without any but the media-savvy even realizing it, they bridge to a repetition of their own key messages. They don't look robotic or trained. They look caring and smart. They communicate all of these elements through tone of voice, body language and word choice.
These tactics and techniques are not aptitudes you are born with. They are honed skills that can be learned and practiced by virtually anyone in the media spotlight.
Checklist of things to learn from reporter before the interview.
Name of reporter
Basic outline or angle of the story
The reporter's deadline
Other information the reporter would like you to have on hand (documents, charts, etc.)
Any particular questions you need to research so you will have the answer on hand
List of other potential sources for this story.
Contact information for the reporter, e-mail as well as phone number
Reminder to yourself to give the reporter your after-hours contact information
Former newspaper executive Andrea Brunais is a media-relations trainer and co-author of the forthcoming book, I See Your Name Everywhere. From 2004-06, she ran the media-relations operation for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa. You can e-mail her at Andrea@ink-inc.tv
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