Tag Archives: interviewee

You’re telling me too much

I once media trained a company and started by asking them what the company did (I always do my homework but wanted to see how they’d handle it in their own words). They paused and started with “well, that’s a difficult question…” and took me on a verbal tour of the business’ history.

This is never, ever a good idea. First because anyone who can’t tell me what their business is or does goes down in my book as “well-intentioned but an over-thinker”. Second because the damned question was only my way of clearing my throat before an interview in the first place. If I need to know what your company does I’ll look at the website, you’ve put it there to help me and it’s appreciated.

If I’m talking to you in an interview then I’m mostly looking for quotes. And those quotes will need to be relatively brief.

Background

I’m a journalist, I get a lot of people approaching me. Let’s guess that I receive around 60 press releases a day and that more than a few of them are well-targeted.

So even before I speak to you or your client I’m sifting in my head, working out what’s relevant and helpful, what may be useful in passing and what’s frankly ridiculous (if the people who send me a daily press release on marital infidelity are reading, I’ll leave you to guess which category is yours). Logically I’m going to need simplicity from you because my brain is only going to cope with so much.

So, before you talk to me or any of my colleagues you really need a couple of things straight, and “what you do for a living” is among them. You could even pretend I have a narrow attention span (journalists tend to) so you need to avoid dwelling on the dull stuff I can find out elsewhere and move to the bits that only you can give me, pronto.

Complexity

The biggest problems of this nature happen when someone works in a large, complex organisation. The temptation is to try to tell me that you do a bit of IT outsourcing, you operate a telecoms division and also supply domestic Internet and phone but you’re there to speak about cloud technology on that particular day.

True though all this is, I’d rather hear the cloud bit first and then offer to put me in touch with other people if I want the full corporate picture. This has two beneficial effects other than the simple “getting to the point is better” effect. First, I’m less likely to make a mistake and attribute the wrong bit of your company to you (it happens on tight deadlines).

Second, even more fatally, it means I won’t find another part of your organisation more interesting than yours and start asking about that instead. On a couple of occasions I’ve had someone accidentally tell me a much more interesting story than the one about which they were hoping I’d write and they’re very disappointed when I won’t go back to the dull one.

Of course I won’t. I’m accountable to my editor and serving my readers. So keep it simple – even if it’s complex, just tell me the bits I need whilst making it clear there’s a bigger picture in the background – keep it clear and keep on topic.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training courses are available by clicking here.

No you can’t check my copy

A major bugbear for a lot of journalists, which comes up often in my media training sessions, is that people want to check what we’ve written before it appears in print. They then get quite puzzled when the answer is a polite but firm “no”.

There are a number of reasons journalists won’t and shouldn’t show you an entire article before it appears. I should make it clear that this is about independent journalism rather than sponsored articles and supplements – when you’re paying it’s a different matter.

I wish I hadn’t said that

My first journalist assignment, some 27 years ago, was to write a piece for a small magazine given away free in W. H. Smiths, to publicise releases of CDs and videos (this was pre-DVD). It was 1988, it was the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and I was briefed to talk to as many of the leading men as I could.

I remember Colin Baker in particular and will always be grateful to him as the first interviewee to give me a break, particularly given the circumstances under which he’d left the part. He gave me time on the phone and was terrific. Being new, I sent him the quotes to check and he changed something from a story about what brought him into the “eyes” of the Doctor Who team to what brought him into the “world” of Doctor Who.

Now, I’m not precious. This didn’t matter a jot and the piece was fine (where “fine” means bland “first attempt at journalism written by a star-struck fanboy”, but that’s a different issue). However, it does illustrate that many people when checking things will come back to what they wish had happened, what they might have said with hindsight. That’s not the function of journalism.

A few years later I was working on a computer trade publication and a guy setting up a computer manufacturer laid into people who spent a fortune on machines from IBM, Compaq and others. I wrote the piece and he called back, deciding he’d been unwise to tilt at those particular windmills. I told him it was too late (which was true), the page had gone – and anyway, he’d said it, unprompted. It’s our job as journalists to offer the truth about what was said, and also some insight – and this doesn’t mean giving an interviewee the opportunity to backpedal.

Exceptions

The only real exceptions are those in which there’s only one possible interviewee. Ironically, although he didn’t insist (and I suspect he wouldn’t), Colin Baker was among the few who could have demanded copy approval because at that point there were only five people alive who could give me an interview about being the Doctor on TV. If he’d said “not without copy approval” then I’d have had nowhere else to go. The example I use in media training sessions is that if I wanted an interview with Lady Gaga there’s only one person in the world who can grant it to me, so her terms would have to stand (I have no idea whether she insists on approval or whatever).

For others, particularly in business journalism, journalists are primed to resist copy approval, as it’s called. There are practical reasons too:

  • There is never enough time. You want to approve your quotes, fine; your comms department has to approve them too, less fine, because you’re building in layers of process we can’t accommodate.
  • The sub-editors and others in our process might change the quotes. Not with any malice but if a piece is overrunning by a line and we can fix it by cutting your words without damaging the sense, we might just (I’d resist this on the grounds of accuracy and change my words instead, but I’ve seen it done).

So those are genuine practical reasons not to allow copy approval, and that’s before we get onto the people who believe we’re part of their marketing department and therefore they should be allowed to “correct” any reviews we might write that don’t concur that their product or service is the best in the universe, ever.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is available by clicking here.