A complete guide to preparing for and smashing every interview as a spokesperson; for TV, video, blogs, podcasts, panels and more.
This article was originally written as a chapter for my book Influence: Powerful Communications, Positive Change. However, it was cut from the book as we simply ran out of space, so now you can enjoy this article for free. Lucky you ;) If you find this useful, please share it. And if you'd like to know more about the book - a complete playbook for entrepreneurs and changemakers to build leadership and brands - or if you'd like to grab some of the book's tools for free, then head here.
Once you get more traction with your PR and other communications activities, you will - sooner or later - be interviewed about your work. It could be to add colour to a story you have pitched to them, or they might ask you (now that you have so much influence…) to comment on a developing news story, or they may wish to profile you and what you are doing. However it comes about, it will come about. And every one of these is a chance for you to bring your brand to life; to articulate your mission and to convey your offer. So let’s prepare.
I use media here as shorthand for all channels that you could use to reach your audiences. It may not be a journalist, necessarily, but even a stakeholder or podcaster. Regardless of the format, the rules are the same and once you have learned them you’ll be able to apply them to other areas where you have to respond to questions more generally, such as being on a panel discussion or fielding questions after a public speaking gig. It’s a versatile skill to have in your toolbox.
If the idea of being interviewed sounds as appealing as running naked through a cactus field, you may not be alone. Many of even the most senior bosses I’ve trained get nervous, even in a practice setting. They take a deep breath, brace themselves and say, ‘OK, let’s go,’ as if they’re preparing for battle. This is because everyone assumes the interviewer is out to expose them, harm them or catch them out. In the majority of cases, this is simply not true - the interviewer just needs to tell a story and they need your help to do this. It’s easy to think that because they are asking questions, they have the power, but actually you do. And when you look at this as being your interview - your chance to tell your story - then you can relax a little, enjoy it and focus on getting value from it. And there is certainly a tonne of value to be had.
1. Fully prepare in advance
Preparation, preparation, preparation! As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” You should never just ‘jump in’ to an interview with cocky teenage confidence. There’s a few things you always need to know first so you can then plan effectively.
The title / channel: Where will this story / conversation appear? What is their angle on such topics?
The audience: Who is going to be reading or listening to this? What do they care about?
The context: What else is going on (in the world or their world) that could affect this interview?
The journalist / interviewer: Who will do the interview? What have they written or said about this topic before?
The story: What subjects specifically do they want to discuss? Who else are they also speaking with for this?
The logistics: Where and how will the interview take place? How long will it be?
Armed with this information you can then...
2. Develop your messages
Make sure you understand what you want from the interview. How can you use it to further your goals? A good way to do this is to picture ideal headlines you’d like to see.
Based on this, you need to develop a set of three key messages that will form the architecture of everything you say in the interview. These messages will be clear and simple, so you can adapt them and weave them into the conversation in a number of different ways. Order these messages by their importance and ensure that one of them is always a call to action, an articulation of the thing you want the audience to do. (If this interview is on the back of a media announcement then chances are your key messages will be the same as your news story). And remember - the interviewer is just a means to help you ultimately reach your audience, so develop these messages with the audience in mind.
A simple set of messages could be comprised of:
News: The announcement / the main thing you want people to know.
Evidence: Why this is important and relevant / more information that supports and evidences this announcement / why you are the authority on this issue. (This will help you get past the ‘so what?’ test).
Call to action: Something you want everyone to do, such as perform an action or visit a website for more information.
It’s also important to have additional information that brings these points to life, so consider how you will be able to expand on your key messages in a number of ways. The audience are more likely to hook into, remember and act on strong stories than facts alone, so make sure you have some prepared.
In addition to the proactive messages, we also need to prepare reactively. Anticipate what kind of questions you may be asked and prepare answers that you are happy with. This will ensure you are ready for any eventuality and feel more confident. These questions might relate to you and your organisation, to the news agenda of the day or to what is happening within your field or industry. Of course, some of these questions will be harder and less welcome than others. Rather than hoping those don’t come up, pay extra close attention to ensuring you are able to handle these tricky questions, even if that is just determining a smart way that you will steer the conversion away from that topic (see ‘bridging’ in Rule 4).
It’s important to be able to respond - not having a smart answer for something simple like “How does this connect with the Sustainable Development Goals?” will make you look less credible and failing to handle a nasty question with commanding confidence will make you look suspicious, untrustworthy and lacking leadership. So, prepare - you want to be doing as little tricky thinking in the interview as possible.
3. Adapt for the format
How you approach and deliver the interview could vary a lot depending on the format; whether it is to be used written (in print / online), as audio (radio / podcast) or visual (TV / video). Each will require nuances to your style to bring out the best strengths of each format - visual and audio mediums will naturally require more animation and personality to be expressed through intonation and gestures but then you have to be careful how those two things add to your message rather than detract from it with an over-eagre performance.
TV / video
Body language - Pay special attention to this because you can bet the viewers will be noting what this says about you. Project confidence, empathy and openness. For TV / video, body language signals to the viewer directly, for other interviews it connects with the interviewer.
Tone - be especially engaging, positive and welcoming. Break out that smile.
Clothing - don’t let what you’re wearing be a distraction. If you can get away with it, wear something with the logo of your organisation or cause to get a free plug.
Backdrop - try to have something that expresses your brand or personality in the background. We’ve all seen clips from zoom interviews where the person was either in front of a chaotic scene that we felt reflected their inner turmoil or - at the other extreme - where the bookcase behind them was unsettlingly curated, with Obama’s memoir in sharp focus. Try and use the space to tell your story without the cliché.
Radio / podcast
Tempo - audio broadcasts have a flattening effect that makes you sound less enthusiastic and energetic. So raise the tempo and energy to compensate.
Incorporate the question - sometimes interviews are played with the interviewer’s questions stripped away. If so, you will need to weave the original question into your answer. So instead of answering ‘Why is doing X important?’ with 'Because of Y’, try ‘It is really important that we do X because of Y’. Fully formed clips can be useful in all formats as they can then be used independently, as soundbites, such as to promote the piece.
Narrative - for the longer answers and in longer interviews, it can help to use storytelling to bridge the gap between you and the listener and make your message more engaging.
Speak directly - listeners to audio channels are often distracted or doing other things (cooking, running, cleaning…) it’s important to grab their attention by speaking directly. Things like, “You’re probably listening to this and thinking ‘I love this idea’, so here’s what you can do right now…”
Print / online
Soundbites - to help ensure there are standalone quotes that can be used in the story, package brief responses. Packaging means wrapping the answer into the question, as before, and being brief is important as the journalist may not have room for much commentary, so will be looking for just one or two killer lines that really add to the story. Journalists will love you if you can deliver great soundbites as it makes their job a lot easier.
Only say what you need - remember that whilst your interview will be cut down, anything you say can be used, so feel free to stop when you have answered the question to your satisfaction. You don’t have to fill an awkward silence artificially created by the interviewer in a hope you will just blab trade secrets.
4. Get set up
Before the interview starts, make sure you are fully ready. Is the room set up how you’d like it, the chair comfy, light not in your eyes, clothes done up? (It does happen…)
Make sure you have your key messages to hand - if you can’t be seen then have them by your side and if you are on camera in your own space, stick your messages up on the wall in front of you, out of shot. You can pretend to be looking wisely into the distance as you consult your notes.
And always ask what the first question will be. They might not be able to tell you but when they can it gives you an opportunity to settle nerves, feel fully prepared and hit the ground running when the interview starts.
YOUR CHANCE TO TELL
5. Own the interview
As I said, this is your interview. I once had an exec finish an interview, where he managed to answer every question hassle-free, tell me, ‘Well I think that went rather well,’ only for me to remind him that a successful interview is not one where you get to the end unscathed, but one where all the key messages you prepared in advance are successfully weaved into your answers. “Did you mention the campaign website?” I asked him. “That question didn’t come up,” he replied, before hearing the ten tonne penny drop. You can never wait for the ideal question, but must treat every question as a mere starting gun for you to get your messages out of the blocks.
‘Bridging’ is a technique you can apply to do this; to bridge from their question to your answer. It helps you to control things while not looking like you are avoiding them. And once you have honed the skill here, you can apply it to all conversations. Bridging can help you to steer the dialogue if you feel they are not covering what you want to cover or - at worst - if they are steering towards dangerous areas.
The key is to recognise what has been asked (never pretend it hasn’t) and then to focus your answer elsewhere. Use bridging terms and phrases to connect back to those key messages that you have front of mind.
The real issue here is…
The important thing to remember is…
What the research tells us is...
I am not the best person to address that but what I do know is...
Before we leave this subject, I need to add…
I think it would be more accurate to say…
Owning the interview also means reframing things positively. Never repeat a negative statement - it not only gives it validity but that could then be used in a quote. Imagine you’re asked: “You’ve suffered a bad year, right?” And you reply: “It may have been a bad year but here’s what we’re doing…” Then ‘CEO laments bad year’ is their gifted headline. Instead, try: “I’m really pleased that this year our hard work has allowed us to continue to deliver great customer satisfaction in an unprecedented economic climate and build a solid base for growth in the year ahead. Here’s what we’re working on [add key message here]…”
And if you can’t answer a question, it’s ok to say that, as long as it doesn’t appear that you are hiding something. If information is proprietary, be honest. Don’t expose yourself to risk or to information that may later be used against you. Be reasonable and say what you can say, “I can’t tell you about that at this stage but what I can say is…”
If in doubt as to what a question means exactly or what they wish to know, ask them to explain or repeat. This may also buy you time to compose yourself.
The fundamental mistake is to assume you have to answer the question. Don’t be drawn into speculation, don’t be led into areas you don’t wish to talk about and, in short, never say anything to a journalist you didn’t set out to say.
“Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” - Henry Kissinger
6. Focus on what you can control
There will be a dozen things going on while you are interviewed - people moving in the background, a fly buzzing your head, construction noise. Or there may be technical issues. It’s easy to get distracted by all this or even allow your nerves to turn into anger or frustration because of them. It’s important to realise that things will happen outside your control so focus on what you can control - the words coming out of your mouth. Let the interviewer worry about the distractions. This is why all your preparation about messages is so important - they will be your safe place in an unpredictable experience.
7. Be a human, but a cool one
People who speak in a guarded manner with a flat tone, like a robot or corporate machine, will come across as untrustworthy and unlikeable. But If you are well-prepared there’s no reason not to relax and enjoy the experience, allowing your charming personality (it’s in there somewhere) to shine.
Remember the audience and speak in words they will understand. Add in anecdotes - personal ones where possible - to reinforce and breathe life into the parts of your story that you are most attached to or wish to emphasise. Make sure you are not just recalling statements and facts but painting pictures with your words and engaging the audience emotionally.
Adapt your tone and words to match the subject at hand, so speak more slowly and display more empathy for serious matters and be more lively and use humour for lighter subjects. But always be confident in what you are saying and, rather than rush, take your time - this will also help ensure you minimise the 'ums' and 'errs' that we associate with people who have less authority.
8. Understand the interviewer
By knowing a little about the interviewer from your preparations, you can use this to establish a rapport with them from the off. This will make them more favourable to you and more likely to do your story justice. Continue to be personal by using their name and being accommodating rather than defensive, and ensure your body language (if you meet them in person or via video) is mirroring and engaging. Ask them questions too - where are they, how are they doing, are they as sucked into season 4 of Narcos as you are? Remember, this is just two humans having a human conversation, not an interrogation.
It’s important to show empathy for the journalist - they have very busy working days and will be juggling dozens of stories at the same time. And they also have complex personal lives just like you. If you can show an awareness of this and make their job as easy as possible then they will appreciate it. Remember - you are the expert here. They are just trying to access the knowledge in your head so try to support them through the interview. Show how much they can learn from you. If you go into the interview assuming it will be a hostile experience then you will act hostile. If you go into it knowing it's an opportunity to build a valuable relationship and further your brand, you can make some big wins.
9. Don’t f*ck it up
There’s a few ways you could throw it all away, but they all come back to ‘not being an idiot.’ Some of the basics include never lying (it will always come back to bite you), not getting angry (any negative emotion will make you look less credible), not being evasive (by evading you have something to hide but by bridging you have something to say) and never arguing (the calmer you are, the more unreasonable a hostile interviewer will seem).
Another way to eff up is to forget that everything you say is on the record - that throwaway comment about having a shitty week as you show the journalist to the door or muttering something about being ‘nervous as hell’ before the first question will not only mould the journalist’s picture of you as being chaotic and lacking leadership but could even find their way into the story.
One of the worst ways to mess up is to display a complete lack of understanding or empathy for how your words will be received. After BP’s Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, 11 workers were killed and the resulting spill became the worst in US history; an ecological, environmental and economic disaster. BP CEO Tony Hayward had been rightly fielding questions for some time about the disaster and the clean-up, until one day he just broke and exposed the deeply insensitive nature of his personal thoughts: “There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.” The resulting furore over this callous remark led to his resignation. F*ck-up score: 10/10.
10. Follow up
The interview isn’t over when the camera stops or the pen goes down. You still have an opportunity to help shape the story and to continue to build a trusting and collaborative relationship with the journalist / interviewer, for the long term. Ask if there is anything else they specifically need or that could help with the story. Whatever that is, email it over to them. And if they say they have everything, follow up anyway - send across your logo, a profile photo and any other relevant collateral, such as a recent report. And if a subject came up that the journalist showed interest in, just be a friend and send over some information or links to help them better understand that subject. You might even ask them at the end of your session, “So what else are you working on?” Chances are you will know someone they can speak to. If so, both the journalist and your contact will be in your debt and remember you. Over time, keep in touch with this interviewer - share helpful things with them, invite them to events, build the connection.
When your story comes out, make the most of this coverage just as you would share, promote and repurpose your own content. Get it out on your channels, in your newsletter, or lift quotes from it for social media graphics. You’ve put in the hard work so reap the rewards.
Did I mention not to f*ck it up?
When interviews are done well they can catapult you forward. However, when they go badly, everyone hears about them for the wrong reasons and it can strip away your reputation and send your plans totally off course while you put out the fires that you have set ablaze.
Cue Jeff Fairburn, a man who ignored every rule in the list above. Fairburn was the CEO of Persimmon Homes. The company had benefited from UK Government support for first time buyers and in a regional TV news interview about homebuilding in Britain, Fairburn refused to comment on his controversial, colossal £75m bonus. Instead of acknowledging the simple, expected question and bridging back to the main topic, he just said ‘No’, shook his head and walked off camera, muttering frustratedly about his disappointment with the interviewer. In what might have otherwise been a regional news clip watched by a smaller number of people, the massive fail of the evasive, angry and unreasonable reaction to a question Fairburn should have totally been prepared for meant the clip went viral. This brought intense scrutiny on Fairburn, his bonus and the whole company. A simple response, calmly bridging to his key messages - that would have also given confidence to investors rather than signal frivolous behaviour - could have been: “We’ve spoken about this publicly before - the bonus is connected to our incredible business strength. I believe we should talk now about the future of homebuilding in Britain, and it’s a future I’m excited by. Here’s why…” As it is, a month after the interview, Fairburn was asked to leave the business.
The great spokesperson is:
A simplifier, not a complicator
Confident and knowledgeable
In tune to the needs of that interview
Positive and friendly
Engaging and passionate
Provides key messages in sound bites and with a good structure
Leaves the interview knowing it will have had a positive impact
Exercise: Interview practice
Set up two chairs and prop up your phone camera to film. Ask a friend (but not a close friend) or a colleague to play the role of the interviewer.
The context: you have been asked to feature in a piece titled ‘My big idea’ about what you are working on (so whatever it is you do, you’ll have to make it sound important).
Ask the interviewer to pose three questions you give them and three they must make up themselves (that you can’t know in advance).
You can make up your own first three questions, or you can choose these:
What are you doing to make a difference in the world?
Why is this important?
How is what you do different or unique?
The great thing about these questions is that it will test how well you have formulated your key brand messages [Note: the book shows you how to do this], and give you practice in articulating them succinctly and with passion.
Once the interview is complete, watch the film back. Give yourself a score out of five for each of the ten golden interview rules, and ask your interviewer to do the same, to give you a total score out of 100.
What strengths did you observe? Celebrate and gain confidence from those. What areas of development did you identify? Put time aside to work on that. Then go again.
1. FULLY PREPARE: Do your research - what is the story, who is interviewing, what is the angle?
2. DEVELOP YOUR MESSAGES: Alway have three key messages, including a call to action. Develop reactionary answers to tricky questions and ways to bridge back to key messages.
3. ADAPT FOR THE FORMAT: Flex your approach to fit TV / video, Radio / podcast or Print / online.
4. GET SET UP: Ensure everything is ready, by your side, and you're happy with the set-up. Ask for the first question.
5. OWN THE INTERVIEW: Bridge back to the key messages, get your points across early and then repeat.
6. FOCUS: Avoid anything not in your control.
7. BE A HUMAN: Be personal and have personality. Bring positive emotions to light.
8. UNDERSTAND THE INTERVIEWER: Empathise and connect with the human in front of you.
9. DON’T F*CK IT UP: Don’t lie, evade, get angry or argue. And watch out for throwaway remarks.
10. FOLLOW UP: How else can you help? Keep in touch to keep the relationship growing.
For more help on building communications strategies and skills, check out the Influence book info and tools page here.