Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

Do you need help with interview technique? Contact me on 07973 278780.

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