Giving a press interview is easy. It’s not like public speaking and it’s not like being cross-examined by Jeremy Paxman. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. A good interview is like a focused, directed conversation between two professionals. I used to be a freelance journalist and I still interview lots of people for my work, so these tips are based on more than 10 years’ experience on the other side of the interview.
- Be yourself
Be concise and answer the question put to you. The more natural you sound, the better the interview.
- Let the interviewer lead
If they seem to want you to talk more, talk more. If they sound impatient and keep interrupting, be more succinct.
- Don’t talk too quickly
I have a theory that one reason why George Bush played so well in the American media is that he talks really slowly. There is some evidence to suggest that has psychological overtones of confidence and power. It also makes people listen harder. It gives you more time to think and the poor journalist more time to write notes.
- Don’t be put off by tape recorders
Some interviewers use a tape recorder and work from the recording and some will write notes during the interview (I do both).
- Agree an agenda and schedule
Agree at the beginning how long the interview will last and some kind of rough agenda so that you get through everything in the time available.
- Don’t ask for questions in advance
It is reasonable to ask a journalist what sort of questions they may ask and what topics they want to cover when arranging the interview, but don’t ask for a list of questions in advance – they won’t have it and even if they do, they won’t send it to you. It’s not that they want to catch you out, it’s just that they want your answers to be fresh and spontaneous, not rehearsed.
- Do your own research
Read the interviewer’s other work, Google them, read the magazine or newspaper the article will be published in. This is much more useful than preparing cod answers to cod questions.
- Do think about what you would like to say
Think about the kinds of things you want to communicate and the sorts of questions you are going to get asked but don’t write prepared statements.
- Remember what the interviewer wants
Usually they want three things: 1) a better understanding of the topic, 2) something new and interesting to say to their readers and 3) quotable quotes that will punctuate the story. If you don’t give them good, human quotes, they’ll make up Frankenquotes.
- The interviewer is human
My best interviews come from a natural rapport with the interviewee. If they are defensive, it makes me defensive but if they are friendly, I am friendly. It’s just human nature. Part of my job is to put my victims at ease but I need something to work with.
- Pick your time well
I am terrible before 10am and after about 5pm. Try to pick a time when you will be relaxed and ‘on form’.
- Be accessible
Give the journalist a phone number and an email address. Don’t hide behind a PR company because they will add extra time and extra cost to every interaction. Try to be flexible about arranging the interview. Don’t be like the publicity-hungry airline executive I interviewed once who gave 24 hours notice of an interview, cancelled on four hours notice, rescheduled to the next day promising an hour but only gave fifteen minutes. And then complained that he only got a one page article.
- Turn up on time
If I arrange to interview ten people, there will always be at least one who doesn’t show up or who doesn’t answer their phone. Some try to reschedule, some disappear. I schedule lots of interviews during an interview day and if someone misses their slot, I normally can’t fit them in later.
- Don’t ask to review the article
For corporate work, this is usually possible though time-consuming. For journalistic interviews, it is a practical and often a contractual impossibility. It complicates the production cycle, most writers’ assignments specifically forbid it and editors fear that people will get all nannyish and try to rewrite a piece to turn a good interview back into a bland, committee-written press release.
- Prepare yourself
Have a friendly journalist or PR ex-journalist do a mock interview with you. Get some media training (although please keep some personality and candour afterwards – don’t turn into PR puppet). Think about what life is like for a freelance journalist.
- No such thing as off the record
Unless you know and absolutely trust the interviewer, don’t say anything ever that you wouldn’t want to appear in print. A good journalist will respect an off the record comment or an inadvertent slip; but the only guarantee comes if you don’t make them. However, don’t do what one of my interviewees did once: ask for the entire interview to be off the record and then complain to my editor when he wasn’t quoted.
- Don’t let the journalist put words in your mouth
Some people think this is a legitimate tactic. For example, “your industry is in a terrible mess and only a bloodbath will sort things out, wouldn’t you agree.” If you don’t disagree they might put those words into quotes as if you said them. So, listen carefully to what they say and if they ask a question in that format, do a Tony Blair and say “I’m not sure I agree with that entirely. What I think is …”