I have conducted countless media interviews with novelists, politicians, professors, archaeologists, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs over the past decade for various publications as well as a radio show. Quite often, just before an interview is about to begin, I am asked, “James, how can I make this interview even better?” Many have heard it said that “there is no right way to do an interview,” but I categorically disagree. I have also heard some comment that all that’s really needed on the part of the interviewee is to “be honest and relaxed.” While I certainly appreciate authenticity and mutual respect, much more is needed for an interview to be a success. Interviews can attract immense attention and bring tangible rewards if the interviewee thinks critically and carefully about their needs prior to the interview itself. The following are the four most important pieces of advice I give to those about to give media interviews.
First and foremost, it’s essential for an interviewee to trust their interviewer. This might sound obvious and tantamount to common sense, but it’s incumbent upon the part of the interviewee to do some background research concerning their interviewer’s background, place of employment, and/or area of expertise. I’d suggest, moreover, that an interviewee takes a glance at past interviews to get a general idea of their interviewer’s manner of speaking too. In an era in which the media is saturated with fake news, sensationalist exposés, and rants on Facebook or Twitter, the “trust factor” is non-negotiable. If you do not trust your interviewer or respect the publisher or media group that oversees their work, don’t work with them! Don’t risk your reputation or position for the promise of “fast publicity.” Trust your instincts.
“It is always a risk to speak to the press: they are likely to report what you say.” – Hubert H. Humphrey
It’s also important for interviewees to remember who their audiences are, and what they hope to achieve through an interview. When I conduct interviews, my interviewees usually desire the broad public exposure facilitated by the publisher. Others are more interested in “niche publications,” in which they can address fellow researchers within a smaller community of readers, and introduce their expertise to those who might not be familiar with their work. Many interviewees are additionally attempting to promote something “new” — a book, a service, or even business idea. Interviewees can affect the flow of conversation to their advantage so they can discuss topics of personal relevance. I recommend that the potential interviewee think of at least three key points or pieces of information that they wish to share with their audience. Considering one’s target audience will help you not only collect your thoughts while in an interview, but it will also enable you better connect with those who are the most interested in hearing what it is you have to say.
There’s nothing wrong with interviewees asking questions of their interviewers before the interview takes place. For example, having the questions beforehand allows the nervous interviewee to practice their responses orally — in the case of a face-to-face interview on radio or TV — or answer the interview questions at their leisure for a printed publication. Questions regarding the logistics of a planned interview are perfectly acceptable prior to a scheduled interview as well. As it’s quite common for interviewees to be unable to discuss certain topics due to limitations placed upon them by their respective employers and/or organizations, asking these questions ahead of time mitigates further complications that would otherwise ensue in the future. The old maxim “ask and you shall receive” definitely applies here.
Finally, I remind my interviewees that an interview is a 50-50 endeavour and opportunity, just like a job interview. I approach my interviews like a HR professional would do so in a job interview: I conduct my research, ascertain my interviewees’ strengths, and finally look for a general trajectory or patterns in the story of their lives that would be of interest to my readers. I know I can shape 50% of what transpires in the process — the rest is up to my interviewee. Do your research, think about what it is you want out of an interview, and ask your own questions.
“The questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do.” – Sam Donaldson
How can I help you meet your goals and audiences? Schedule a free consultation with me!