Press interviews: think before you speak

When I’m media training, one of the things people try to eliminate during their interview practice is hesitation. They don’t like it, they’re terrified of silence.

I’m not certain it’s so damaging. I remember from a quarter of a century ago in my first journalism job, the then managing director of a networking company called 3Com would always start an answer to a question with a long silence. Once when I was on the phone to him I thought we’d lost the connection. I said: “Are you still there?” He said, “Yes, that’s the noise I make when I’m thinking.”

Don’t say any old thing

The opposite reaction is to blurt out any old thing. I’ve suffered from this.

Years ago I attended the launch of one of the first phones to sync with Microsoft Outlook. This was, I promise, a big wow at the time. At that point, I’d just started using Apple products and Microsoft Office for the Mac didn’t have Outlook, it had something called Entourage instead.

So I asked the CEO of this phone company, “When will the phone support Microsoft Entourage on the Mac?” He answered immediately: “I believe that’s coming in February.” This was about three months away.

This was a CEO of a phone company. I assumed he knew what he was talking about. So I was surprised when, the following day, I had a sheepish call from the PR people involved. They had no idea why he’d given that answer, they said; since Outlook had 95% of the company’s target market and the coding for the Mac was completely different they had no intention at all of connecting to Entourage. It didn’t make commercial sense.

Luckily this was pre-widespread-Internet, so I hadn’t written a story, Tweeted, Facebooked or anything else you might be able to do by now. The error was caught, the nonsensical story contained.

So why did he answer with – frankly – this complete rubbish? I can think of two reasons. First, he had an adrenaline hit and went into “just say something” mode, he had to fill the silence. The 3Com boss I mentioned wasn’t afraid to give himself time to consider.

Second, he wasn’t confident enough to say he didn’t know, or to refer me back to his tech department or his PR people.

It could have been pretty damaging. So, do you or your clients ever feel pressured to say something to the press – and offer an answer that may be ill-thought-out or plain wrong?

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