Business people often mistakenly assume that because they know their companies, industries and products so well, they’re in good shape to handle a media interview. But even the most surefooted spokesperson can flop an interview when proper planning isn’t done. A little media training goes a long way, and is something you should consider as an investment in yourself.
Here are 10 tips for your next interview that will help keep you from stumbling and making a poor impression:
1) Make a plan for your interview. What would you like to see in the resulting media coverage? What two or three key messages do you want to relay? If you go into an interview and just answer the questions you’re asked without a thought for what it is you want the audience to know, you are yielding total control of the interview to the journalist. You need to be prepared by knowing in advance what your own goals are for the interview.
2) Be aggressive and make sure the question you want to be asked is asked, even if you have to ask it yourself. Don’t wait until the reporter asks you the question you want to answer. The question might never come. Instead, use another question to segue into the topic you want to discuss. For example, “What really matters is ____.” Or “The most important issue is ______,” or “The more interesting question is______.”
3) Stay away from answers that are too technical. When you talk above people’s heads, you drive them away. Answer as simply as possible, without jargon.
4) Stick to what a reporter asks and what you want to say. There’s no need to volunteer additional information. This goes back to planning what your goals are for the interview. You should know what it is that you’d like to communicate from the start, and stick to that information as much as possible. More is not better. Answer questions briefly. When you give long-winded answers, you give the power to the journalist to choose what parts of what you said to use and what to omit.
5) If you don’t know the answer to a question, just say so. There’s nothing wrong with saying you don’t know, that there hasn’t been a decision yet, or that you aren’t sure of the answer and need to check and will get back to the journalist. We had a client some years ago who didn’t tell us he was going to be meeting with reporters on a business trip to another country. He had a plan for the interview, but it was a misguided plan at best. He intended to talk about his company’s expansion in a different country. Quite naturally, the journalists wanted to know about his company’s expansion in their country, not somewhere else. As it turned out, there was no concrete corporate plan to expand in that country. Our client didn’t want to “lose face” by not having an answer to this question, and so he made one up. “Well, ABC City is a very good place. And so is XYZ.” The reporters took his answer to mean that these were where the company planned to expand, and they dutifully took notes and went back and wrote their stories. The next day there were stories in several newspapers alluding to the company’s plans to expand in ABC and XYZ, and our client was, to say the least, very upset.
6) Don’t answer “No comment.” There are very few exceptions to this rule. When you say “no comment,” it almost always makes you look like you have something to hide. You should realize in advance that difficult questions come up and anticipate them, and plan in advance how to answer in a way that won’t hurt you. Advance preparation of likely questions and possible answers is the job of your PR team, with your input, of course.
7) Don’t repeat a negative question. There’s no reason to hurt yourself needlessly by repeating a negative question. Simply answer it briefly and bridge to what you want to say.
8) Here’s what to do when you get a ”gotcha” question, one of those loaded questions that paint you negatively no matter how you answer. The trick is to answer as briefly as possible and simply create a bridge from the negative question to one of the messages you want to convey. Example: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Answer: “I never started.” (Think about it: if you answer, “I didn’t beat my wife,” the headline could easily be, “X Denies Beating His Wife.” This is also an example of why you don’t want to repeat something negative.
9) Have back-up information to prove the points you want to make. If you can provide facts and site the sources, you’ll sound much more credible.
10) Don’t ask whether you can approve the story before it’s published. This will make you look unprofessional. Journalists (especially in the trade media) will sometimes provide information to you for fact-checking, so you can volunteer to be available for any further questions or for fact-checking if the journalist wishes.
When it comes to performing well in an interview situation, practice makes perfect. Professional media training gives you help in honing your messages, answering difficult questions and practicing in front of an audience. If you can’t get professional help, at least practice in front of a mirror. It’s also very helpful to have someone record your answers on video, so you’ll be able to watch yourself and critique your answers and facial expressions.