How To Be a Great Interview

interviewHow hard can it be, really, sitting down and doing an interview with a reporter? We ask you questions, you answer them. Simple, right?

Apparently not. That's my conclusion after spending well over a dozen years on the "asking" side of the table, and it's confirmed by the questions I get, over and over: How do I get press for my company? How do I not screw up an interview?

How you get press depends quite a bit on what you're trying to get press for. Maybe we'll tackle that in another column. But how you conduct yourself during an interview doesn't vary much at all. To wit:

Write the headline on your story. If you've decided to give a reporter an interview, then ostensibly it's because you have a story to tell, right? Well, can you summarize that story in 12 words or less? No? That's too bad. Because that's how many words are used in a headline—and a generous one at that. Now we're not saying that a reporter will use your headline. That's not what this is about. It's about taking the time to come up with a succinct, compelling summary of whatever point it is you're trying to make. If you don't know what the headline on your story is, then who does?

Know how much time you have. Is this an hour interview or do you have 10 minutes? If it's only 10 minutes, and you insist on starting with, "Well, let me give you the 50,000-foot view" (as many people do), you're on the express train to irrelevancy.

Don't read from a script. Before an interview, some PR people will help you write out the answers to questions you're likely to be asked. This is undoubtedly good practice. But if you read those answers during the interview, as many people do, there is no way you're going to be quoted. Even if you manage the most wonderful turn of phrase, it'll sound flat. So sure, rehearse your answers. Then throw out that piece of paper and remember: A good interview is a conversation. So have one.

Speak English. You don't need to impress anyone with words that aren't a normal part of your vocabulary. This just increases the chances that you'll use the wrong word or that you'll inadvertently make up a word. Or maybe you'll end up delivering a sentence that you think sounds impressive or important – look at these big words I've used! – but is actually incomprehensible. There's nothing wrong with simple, short words.

Go off-message. There are certain things you probably want to get out of this interview. There are certain points that are probably important to you, so you may repeat them a few times. Okay. But if a reporter asks you something unrelated, then generally, you should humor him or her. Don't reflexively turn the conversation back to what's important to you. We can argue about whether or not that's rude, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that it's boring. And worse, not quotable.

Think about it: If the reporter decides that your pre-prepared points are not going to work for his or her story, do you want to be cut out of the story altogether? Sometimes the reporter will turn to oddball questions out of desperation: You've been on the phone 20 minutes and haven't said one interesting thing. Or maybe the reporter is gathering string for a second story, and wondering if maybe you can help with that one, too. Either way, it's worth playing along.

Don't blow the softball question. Occasionally, a reporter might ask you a question whose answer seems blindingly obvious. This does not mean it is a stupid question. It is a gift. It is called the softball. Answer it.

When I interview entrepreneurs, for example, I often ask why they decided to go out on their own. Sometimes this simple question yields a really interesting answer. A colleague of mine recently asked this question to a healthcare entrepreneur. She looked at the reporter as if he were an idiot. She thought the answer was so obvious that he had no business asking the question. 

But some entrepreneurs have great stories, and often they start at the beginning – with how he or she made the decision to become an entrepreneur. This entrepreneur missed the opportunity to have her story told.

Be easy to reach. Don't make the reporter go through the PR person just to check the spelling of your name. Give out your email address and your cell phone. After all, do you want this reporter to call you again or not?

Don't try to be perfect. Perfect is boring. If something went wrong – and we know that at some point, it did – then the story of how you fixed it is a whole lot more helpful to readers than a story about how for you, everything somehow magically goes right, all the time.

Answer the question. There is nothing more irritating than an interview subject who refuses to answer a question—and then pretends that they've answered it. Most reporters will ask you the same question, worded a few different ways, before giving up. This does not mean that you have fooled them. It means they think you're arrogant, and are wasting their time.

Unless you are on television (a whole different ball game), it is totally okay to pause to think. If you need to buy yourself time, just say, "Let me think about that." Or, "That's interesting, no one's asked me that before."

If you really can't answer, just say so, and say why. I have had many entrepreneurs say to me, "I can't give you our revenue numbers, because our venture investors won't let us release them." Depending on the publication I'm working for, I either say, "Okay, I understand. Can you give me some other way to show how big the company is, such as how many employees you have?" or, "Well, do you mind going back to your investors? If I don't have revenue numbers for your company, I can't write a story about it, so it might help to make sure they understand that."

Do not ask to approve your quotes. This is the mark of a high-maintenance amateur. High-maintenance amateurs do not get called back.

Anyway, the answer is no, and your PR person knows it full well. Even if they pretend – because they work for you, not for me – that it's a totally reasonable request and they'll do their best to make it happen.

Be honest. Get the facts right. This may sound obvious. But it is still amazing how often people decide to, shall we say, stretch the truth under the assumption no one will ever find out. We live in the age of Google, folks, and all manner of online databases and reference materials. If you do stretch the truth, the one thing you can count on is that someone will point it out.

We all make mistakes. But if you're not sure if something happened in June or August, or if was 10 or a dozen people you hired, just say, "You know what? I'm not exactly sure. Let me check on that and get back to you."

Don't ask to go off the record retroactively. At the risk of stating the obvious: This is an interview. The reporter expects to be able to use the material -- any and all of it -- in a story. The worst thing that can happen is for him or her to spend 20 minutes talking to you and for you to say, "Oh, but that's off the record, right?" This is the sort of thing that makes reporters' heads explode, and that's messy.

If you want to make sure the reporter understands something sensitive, but don't want it attributed to you, say, "Can we go off the record for a minute?" before you make your revelation. Then make sure you and the reporter agree as to when you're back on the record. --Kimberly Weisul


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