A lot of my media training is based on dummy interview sessions, and I’m often surprised that people just leap into the first exercise. They rarely ask for a scenario, for which publication I’m pretending to write, and what is the purpose of the interview.
Interviewers have to prepare for different sorts of event. If you know what they’re after you’re more likely to be able not only to help them but to use the opportunity to your advantage. I’ve also come across a handful of interviewers who don’t consider the sort of piece they’re trying to put together afterwards; these tips could help them, too.
Fact checking interview
OK, here’s a completely fictional example: I hear a rumour that Facebook is going into the pizza delivery business. I’ve been bitten too many times by writing things off according to my instinct so I pick up the phone. My questions will be primarily factual, If my Facebook contact understands this, he or she will answer appropriately. On the other hand, they might assume I’m after something else.
A variant on this is the reactive news interview, in which I’d be asking Facebook what it had to offer the pizza customer. Trust me, they’d think of something.
Interview for a feature, looking for quotes
If tI’m writing a feature on the pizza delivery industry and hear the Facebook rumour, the company might want to help by offering all sorts of quotes to pad the thing out.
This is great for me, maybe they say something like “Facebook has no immediate designs on the pizza delivery industry but we’d never say never. And we admire the people who ride those bikes and always deliver a hot product.”
It’s a deliberately extreme example but you’d be surprised how many people will try to say something vaguely relevant to help and end up with an on-the-record quote about something in which they really shouldn’t have become involved.
From the interviewer’s point of view I’ll have asked more open-ended questions to elicit comments rather than facts. I’m likely to have put in more abstract questions to get opinions rather than hard truths and falsehoods.
Perhaps I’m convinced there’s a genuine story and that the underlying theme is that Facebook is losing money. It’s hiding this and is desperate to deny it. So I go in harder – as a quoted company, Facebook is accountable to its potential shareholders. Remember the famous Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard interview from years ago? Howard was home secretary at the time and therefore accountable to the electorate. As a trained lawyer he was determined to stick to his script. He’s quite defensive because Paxman is being ruthless with his questioning. Paxman, meanwhile, can’t think of another question (no, seriously, he admits it here) so he more or less machine guns the thing home.
Sometimes I’ve found people take Howard’s defensive view (appropriate in this case) when there’s no need.
The profile interview
Sometimes you genuinely want just a chat with someone, some personality, a bit of background as well as the facts. In 2010 I went to Malaysia to promote my book, “This Is Social Media”, and one of the journalists asked me about my favourite gig. There was no side to this, no agenda, she just wanted something more than “an author has written a book”, which is hardly newsworthy.
I grant you, she then asked whether I’d actually seen the Beatles in the 1960s. I must have looked rough that day (I was five when they split up).
I’ve had interviewees behave as if they were expecting a grilling and acting defensively in the past when all I was asking was either fact checking or personality stuff.
A variant on this is the in-house interview, for a company magazine or website. I’ve done plenty of these on the understanding that I’m working for the interviewee’s employer, client, publisher or whatever. The questioning will be softer and I’ll often be mindful that as a corporate piece the interviewee is going to be allowed to check their quotes afterwards (and “I wish I hadn’t said that” is an acceptable response). Occasionally I still find someone takes a defensive attitude.
Finding out what sort of interview you’ll be involved in is not always a pushover but it can be worth asking. If you use a PR company it’s easier for them to put the question; if I ask “will you be giving me a hard time” it sounds a little needy, whereas a PR person saying “where will this be going?” sounds routine.
A good PR agency will also be able to find out about the journalist and the publication, whether they have a habit of going in with the hard questions or are more likely to stick to the easy stuff.
Do try to find out what sort of interview you’re doing. And if you’re the interviewer, consider what sort of article, podcast or video you need at the end – taking the right approach will help.
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