Eight Ways to Answer Media Interview Questions.
I have a recurring nightmare that there is a You Tube video of me that has “gone viral” because of some incredibly ignorant thing I’ve said and done. In my dream, the details of what I said or did are unclear. What is clear is that I somehow disgraced myself while on camera. I wake feeling flushed, embarrassed and not able to get over whatever it was that got posted everywhere. It is not a good feeling.
The best thing to remember when preparing to answer media questions is that you are there to promote you, or your business, cause or candidate. You are not there to make friends, get laughs, or prove how smart you are. An interview is about getting on the air or in print the facts and point of view you want to read and most importantly you want current and prospective customers, donors or voters to hear, see or read. Here is how.
- Know your message points. Write 3-5 short, declarative sentences that are the core of your communications. These are the points that will anchor you to a good outcome. I like to call these message points “must airs” as they are the points that you “must air” during the interview to be a success.
- Learn to bridge. There are going to be times when a reporter will ask you a question that you do not want to answer or are not able to answer. Instead of a silent dead-eyed stare, take the question and build a “verbal bridge” to one of the must airs you want to make. Here is an example. Say you are in the pet food business and you are introducing a new type of cat food for people who have a lot of money to spend on pets. This food is made domestically (one of your must airs) and is very high in protein, vitamins and minerals (another must air), and made under the supervision of the U.S. government (final must air). These are the points you want to emphasize for an interview.
You are talking with a reporter about this new cat food and she asks you about concerns that cat owners have about contamination due to ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is used in anti-freeze and is extremely poisonous. A number of pets were killed by it when contaminated cat food made in China was sold here. The last thing you want associated in the media with your new cat food are the words “contamination” or “ethylene glycol” so you bridge. Here is how that answer could look. “Our new food is very high in nutrients and made domestically under the watchful eye of the FDA and other regulators, so our customers can have complete confidence in it.” See what you did?
You re-stated that your food was made here, that it was high in nutritional value and regulated under U.S. law. See what you did not do? You did not repeat any language about China, contamination, ethylene glycol or poison. Instead of a response that would reinforce negative ideas about cat food and remind everyone about how cat food once poisoned a lot of cats, you used this as a place to emphasize positives about your product. That is bridging. It is not easy and not for beginners. To be good at it takes a lot of practice.
- Bridge to keep the conversation on track. The time you and the reporter have are limited. There are times when friendly, get acquainted chat can take up too much time. If you find that the conversation has strayed from the topic you want to talk about find a way to bridge back. Here is an example. A reporter has started talking about all the funny cat videos on You Tube that are shared on her Facebook page and just how entertaining they are. This has gone on for about long enough, so bring the conversation back by saying something like, “those videos remind me and other pet lovers about how important these animals are to us and how we have a duty to care for them in the best way possible and that includes how we feed them…” This is not a great example but you get the idea. Gently deliver the conversation back to the thing you want to talk about.
- Practice. This is not something any of us was born knowing. To get good at it will take practice. Get a co-worker to ask you difficult or irrelevant questions so you can practice bridging to the answers you want to see or hear.
- “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. So many times interviewees believe that they have a duty to know every single thing about their topic. No such expectation exists, as no reasonable person would expect you to know every last thing about anything. So if you do not know, say so. It is an honest answer. Promise the reporter to look into their question and to get back to them with an answer, then do so.
- Keep your answers short. This too comes with practice. I love to talk, so keeping my answers short has taken a lot of time and effort. Also I’ve spent a lot of time working with technical people over the years. Technicians and engineers are really smart and know a lot and they love to talk about how much they know. This is great for technical presentations but not with reporters. Long answers can be misunderstood and are easy to misquote. If you keep the answer short, there is less chance for a misunderstanding. So if you tend to go on and on, realize it and practice shorter answers.
- Always tell the truth. If you tell the truth 99 times and tell a lie 1 time, you are a liar. Getting caught in a lie is embarrassing. Getting caught in a lie by a reporter will end your career. If there are things you are not able to talk about then say so. For example, if there is a court case ongoing or some other information that needs to be kept confidential, then say that. If the results of a study or test are positive, then say that too without embellishment. Interviews with the press are not the time for “fish stories”. If there is some negative to report, then do so. Trying to be cute, clever or spin answers will alienate reporters and they can spot and smell “bovine excrement” for miles.
- Practice more. And practice on camera if possible. Speakers will learn a great deal about how to better their performances watching themselves on camera.
There are tons of other articles and even entire books written on just this topic. So do not limit yourself, go and read those too. There is lots to know and plenty of smart people who can help you. The 7 points made here are all techniques that I have used for nearly years and I can tell you from personal experience that they work. Good luck with your interview. Now go practice!