When it comes to doing interviews with journalists, understanding their point of view and what they need for a good story is important and helpful. When you assist them with what they’re trying to accomplish, you become even more valuable. The best part is, not only do you help them but you help yourself as well. It’s a win win.
In this week, we’re exploring the journalist’s point of view so that you go into each interview with confidence and chutzpah.
Let’s get right to it
- Interviews may be conversational, but they are not casual. With the addition of social media and the fact that untrained media folks are creating significant audiences, I see this rule broken more often every day. However, with regard to earned media, don’t be fooled by an easy conversation. The journalist has a job to do, and when you keep that in mind, it’s going to be a better experience for both of you.
- It isn’t about your book — most of the time. If you think it’s all about your book, you’re going to be disappointed and frustrated. Yes, your job is to get your book’s message across in the best way possible, so be prepared with your key messages and sound bites, but 95% of the time, it isn’t specifically about your book. The exception is the media outlets that focus only on books, not necessarily on your expertise.
- Organization is essential. Attention to detail for both the interviewer and the interviewee is imperative. From a journalist’s point of view, this process begins well before the interview, whether it’s via zoom, the phone, or during face-to-face interviews. The intensity of the preparations may vary depending on the gravity and importance of the interview, e.g., is this a news topic?
- What are the goals of the interview? For the journalist, it may be to obtain specific information as part of a long-term project and they’re interested in “learning more,” so they need to determine in advance what they’d like to learn. Or, it may be a timely interview with the intention of being released, aired, or published that same day. In either case, the journalist will compile a list of questions to ask, which may be highly specific (“What were you doing at noon on June 12, 2020?”) or general in nature (“Tell me about your book”), as required. Be prepared for this so you don’t stumble or come across as unprepared.
- Ask. As the interviewee, ask questions as to what kind of interview they are seeking. Is it informational? Is it going to publish or air? Do they want background information from you, and do they plan to make you a part of the interview? (Some will just want info and you will never actually be seen or heard in the piece. You need to know this. After all, if you’re going to be a part of it, you should be included. Check and make sure.)
- The basics. The journalist needs to find out if the interview is on the record.***They will ask you the basics, i.e., your name, spelling, name of your book and/or organization, address, the name of your organization and title. If there’s any other basic information they need for the article or segment — say, if it’s on young entrepreneurs born in your state — they’ll need to ask you for your birthplace and age.
- ***Important Note: Consider nothing “off the record”. Don’t ever say anything to a journalist that you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Nothing against journalists; Some of my best friends are in that field, but how well does anyone really keep a secret. Just trust me on this: There is no “off the record”.
- Questions become topics. Once the journalist has a list of targeted questions ready, he or she will turn them into a list of general topics to discuss with you. Ultimately, it’s better for them to work with a topics list rather than a series of carefully worded questions. The intention is to create a natural, though purposeful, conversation.
- The tools of the trade: They will use a voice or video recorder, often on their phone. If they’re going old school, and sometimes in addition to the phone recorder, they may use a reporter’s notebook, pen or pencil, and often a backup laptop. If the interview is via Zoom or another online platform, they will definitely record it. If the interview is taking place in person and you have business cards, bring some with you.
- Topic list. As the interviewee (or your publicist will do this), ask for a list of topics the journalist wants to cover. Journalists don’t really love this request and will often give you a general sense of topics — and they should. We want you to be prepared and not surprised when you sit down together. They will resist agreeing that you will stick only to those topics and they won’t send you a list of questions they’re going to ask ahead of time. Most journalists will reserve the right to ask any question they deem relevant during the interview itself. You can prepare your own set of questions and send it to him or her prior to the interview. It doesn’t guarantee they’ll use them, but they might pull some questions from it. I love this because it helps you to shape the interview.
- Forget it. Don’t bother asking if you can approve the interview before it goes live. Also, journalists will not agree to have quotations approved before they are used in your story; it is not good journalistic practice and does not serve your audience in an honest way.
Here are some good practices for journalists during the interview
Expect these things:
Tell the truth. Trained journalists should say up front they are a journalist. It is unethical to fool or mislead people, although some who are not trained may use this tactic, so beware. The journalist should also indicate that he or she is planning to publish or broadcast material from the interview, even if they are freelance and don’t yet know where or how it will be published. As for your part, always tell the truth. It will haunt you forever if you don’t and that is discovered.
Location. Journalists will often arrange to conduct the interview at your home or workplace (whichever is more appropriate). That places them in a target-rich environment, which greatly increases the chances that they will be able to meet people and see things that they would never get otherwise. Plus, just being in your environment gives them more of an idea about who you are and what is important to you. In any case, once there, offer a quiet location to talk.
Permission. The journalist should ask for your permission to record the interview, and I recommend that you record the interview on your phone as well. That way you have a copy of exactly what was said, how it was said, and the context in which it was said. You probably won’t need this, but do it anyway.
Something you should know. Depending on the interview, you may be asked to speak “on background” (meaning they can use the information, but without specific attribution) or even “off the record” (information that cannot be used). See my note about this up above. Consider nothing “off the record”.
The rules. The journalist should establish the rules at the beginning of the interview. If you agree that an interview is all on the record, you can’t declare afterwards that something is off the record. And (I’m going to say it again), nothing is “off the record”.
In the beginning. Once the interview begins, the journalist will likely ask the basic information (name, title and so on), then will begin with their list of questions. If you have your interview launch all set, and know your key messages, you should be off and running. If not, you may either be all over the place or barely speaking. If the latter, you can expect some open-ended questions (“So, tell me about your childhood”) rather than ones to which you can give a yes/no answer (“Was your childhood happy?”). If you’re nervous, they may allow you to talk at length to help put you at ease and open up mutual communication.
Who’s in charge? Journalists think they are in charge of the interview. But between you and me, and no media person will ever tell you this, you are in charge. In fact, when I media train authors and business owners, this is one of the most important items we cover. Journalists think it’s their job to control the flow of the interview, asking the questions and keeping things on track. I disagree, and often if you fall into the passive role simply answering every question asked, you can end up with an interview that doesn’t serve you at all, and that’s not right. That doesn’t mean you can’t let the topic of discussion move in unexpected ways — indeed, this can sometimes be to your advantage — but make sure you get what you came for.
The difficult questions. You can expect fairly easy questions initially and if there are any difficult or uncomfortable ones, they will come later. Maintain your composure. If you’ve had media training, this can be your time to shine. The journalist may frame the question so that it does not become a debate and consider triangulating so it does not become personal: For example, use the phrasing “Your critics have said… What do you say?”
Avoidance. If you’re avoiding answering a certain question or questions, this means you need media training. You should not be afraid of answering any question, and if you are, get help. That doesn’t mean some questions and answers won’t be difficult, but you should never feel on the spot not knowing how to move forward.
Process. As the interview proceeds, some journalists may take notes, even though it’s being recorded. If something is said of particular interest, then jotting down the time in the interview when it occurred will be helpful to them and will greatly speed finding and verifying the quote (or whatever it is) after the fact. If you mention the name of a person, organization or place, they will ask for confirmation of the spelling.
In the end. At the conclusion of the interview, the journalist will thank you for your time and will likely ask if you can be in contact again if there are additional questions. They will ask for a cell phone number and direct email to you if they don’t already have them, as it can provide a quicker path to a response. They may ask you for access to photos and any other documents or objects that have come up, because it’s always harder to do hours or days later.
Don’t ask. It’s in bad form to ask that you see the written piece, (or watch or listen to an interview) before it publishes or airs. They can’t do that, and it makes you look uninformed if you ask. If they edit the interview in some way, they may come back to you to make sure none of the edits changed the meaning you were trying to convey, but not always. Here’s a tricky way to make that request though, so you frame it in a way that is acceptable. “If you’d like me to make sure any of your edits didn’t change the meaning of what I was saying, I will be available to respond. Here is my contact information.” But don’t say, I’d like to see it before it’s published. That doesn’t work.
Non fiction authors often have books based on their expertise. If you’re an expert and your book’s topic can be tied into a news story, interviews can be more challenging than just talking about your book in an easy casual way. Hopefully this week’s post is enlightening so that when you find yourself in this situation, you will come out shining.
To your success!
P.S. Media training is everything and can make all the difference. Here’s what we cover when we delve into it.
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