Tag Archives: interviewee

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

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.

Learning at school

Today I had the pleasure of speaking to some students at my daughter’s school on journalism as a career. They were happy to attend – fair enough, there were croissants – and listened well, engaging in discussions too.

I hope I was able to pass on some learnings. Like all the best speaking experiences, though, I took away something unexpected myself. Today’s lesson for Guy was about expectations: people won’t always agree with a point of view just because it looks obvious after a few years’ experience as a hack.

Here’s a widely-known video clip. I’ve used it on this site before – regular readers might recall it. If you don’t have time to watch, it’s the one in which the owner of the Cereal Killer restaurant in Camden doesn’t want to answer a question:

I asked: just out of interest, who “won” that interview?

I was surprised by the response. It was about 50/50. Now, in my mind, the interviewee – who uses a PR company so presumably wasn’t “doorstepped” but entered the interview quite willingly – is unprepared, he’s not devoting time to the interview and is completely thrown when it turns out he’s not just going to get a free advert for his restaurant. Not all of the students agreed.

One suggested there are more polite ways of making a point. Actually, “sneaky” was the phrase she used. Another thought it was a plain rude question.

Now, as a journalist I feel very strongly that at its best, my trade helps hold people to account. I have to accept, though, that not everybody is going to share my view.

So, what if the public agreed – that the interviewer was overstepping the mark, that we as a trade don’t show enough basic decency to our subjects? Remember, all the guy had done was open a restaurant, it’s hardly a criminal offence.

If you write for a living like I do, how do you make sure you’re in tune with your readership?

The illustration above is a stock picture in the public domain – the young women to whom I spoke were someone else entirely.

Is body language important?

Media training candidates sometimes ask me whether body language matters. Some candidates (and more problematically their PR advisors) think there are fixed rules.

My only rules are as follows: first, try to watch yourself on video. Second, don’t get too hung up on what you see.

Try not to look like Thunderbirds

A couple of years ago a colleague and I were media training a CEO from a large international company. He was a nice guy and listened to people. Unfortunately one of the people to whom he paid most attention was his public relations person.

That should have been a good thing and it was, until we started filming him. Then she started giving instructions out. He looked relaxed, so she told him to sit up. He’d been speaking with his hands all the way through the session – so she told him to keep them rigidly by his side.

Honestly, by the end of it he looked like a particularly stilted puppet. It just didn’t work.

If you’re concerned about how you might look when you’re being interviewed, first bear in mind that everybody else feels the same – we hate to watch ourselves on television. Second, if you look comparatively relaxed, don’t formalise it too much – you’re better off looking human.

We all umm and aah a bit in conversation. Take it all out and you look as though you’re doing a speech rather than a genuine interview. The audience can spot a prepared question at some distance.

Be natural, be yourself, be prepared and well-briefed. It’s pretty much all you’re going to need. I can help with practice and interview techniques if you need them.

Do you need help with your media interactions? From December, all media training sessions with me will include a filmed HD interview – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Media training: mention the brand!

Picture: In real life I look less like a geography teacher. I hope.

At a media training session yesterday I had an unusual experience. In general I find people are too quick to mention their company name too many times. They’re in the interview to make their point and build their business so of course you get the “In my company, X, my colleagues think the best thing for X to do is this. X customers, on the other hand…”

…and so it goes until all of the quotes hit the cutting room floor. I’ve had near-rows with internal PR people about this in the past, who’ve urged clients to mention the brand in every sentence. Never, ever do this. No matter what you’ve said, we’ll hear “product puff” and won’t use the quote.

Yesterday’s event was different. The company in question had to be coaxed into mentioning their brand at all.

Branding in media interviews

At Clapperton Media we believe there’s a balance to be struck and no hard and fast rules, except that if you play a recording of an interview back and feel you’ve been too salesy, you might be right. (See what I did there? One brand mention and that’s going to be the lot for this post).

Bear in mind, though, that there can be different sorts of interview. If you’re doing a piece to camera or an audio interview, you’re free to ask how it’s going to be used. If they’re going to use your best quote and your best quote only, try to get the company name into every answer – otherwise you’ll lose your opportunity to promote it. If the publication is going to use the full five minutes or however long, then once or twice is enough.

Either way, focus on the valuable content you can share with listeners, readers or whoever. No matter how polished your delivery is, you’re going to be remembered better for what you said rather than how you branded yourself – and this is true whether you’re a massive international corporation or a tiny sole trader.

Do you need help with your press engagements? See our media training page for information.