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How to: prepare for your interview with a journalist

You have an interview with a journalist coming up. You know you need to be prepared to answer all their questions with authoritative knowledge and confidence. Some questions might be difficult, which means you’ll definitely need to be ready.

To best prepare, put yourself in the journalist’s shoes. Here are our tips to get you thinking about how a journalist may formulate questions so you can go into your next interview feeling confident.

Think of the Fundamental Five – who, what, where, when, why

Who is/are the subject(s)? What is the story about? Where is the story based? When did the story take place? Why is the story important?

When interviewing someone, journalists are likely doing their own preparation by considering what questions they can ask to get at the answers to these five basics, so considering them in advance can help ensure you’re able to answer their most basic requests confidently.

Consider the angle

It’s not unreasonable to assume that in many cases when you’re about to be interviewed by a journalist, you’ll know in advance what the angle (aka the viewpoint or perspective) is going to be. Whether they’re responding to a story pitch or reaching out for a piece they have in the works, journalists will typically be upfront about why they want to interview you, what the purpose of the story will be, and what it’ll be about. Armed with this information, you can navigate your interview prep by considering what questions you might have if you were to write the same story from that angle.

One example from a journalist’s perspective might be, “We’d like to interview you about your company’s upcoming groundbreaking ceremony.” The story of course would be about the ceremony, but there could be multiple angles: the history of the company, how the opening came to be and why it’s significant, and plans for the future. Consider all possible angles of the story prior to your interview.

Be prepared for reporters who do their homework

To approach any interview, it’s incumbent upon the reporter to do as much research as possible. This research can help prep the reporter for their conversation, but it also helps inform any questions they might ask. After all, sometimes answers lead to more questions. One of the great moments in any interview is when the reporter brings something up that they discovered in their research, and the subject responds with, “Wow! You really did your research!” It demonstrates diligence on the reporter’s end.

Assuming the journalist has done their research, consider that he or she might already know quite a bit of information about you and/or the business or organization you’re representing as the interviewee. You might even be surprised by how much they already know.

Take this situation for example. You’re the founder of an upcoming local brewery and your grand opening is just weeks away. You land an interview with a reporter that will help promote the opening. The reporter might look into how many other breweries there are in the area so he or she can ask how you plan to compete in such a saturated market. Or maybe the reporter would research the style of your beer, the history of the building you choose to host your brewery in, or contact other relevant subjects, like the director of the state’s brewers’ guild, to get their take on the industry.

While some interviews are more in-depth than others, and the level of pre-interview research on the reporter’s part will vary from person to person, you should enter your interview assuming that a reporter has thoroughly researched the subject matter and is prepared with information you might be surprised to find they already know.

Ask what questions you can expect

Asking doesn’t guarantee you’ll get them ahead of time, but some reporters will share their questions in advance, depending on the nature of the interview, the content, the subject, and the story. Likewise, if there’s a specific point of interest related to the interview topic that you’d like to be sure is mentioned, you can make the journalist aware of that in advance so that they can work it into the conversation when appropriate. Ultimately, you’re not writing the journalist’s piece for them, but often a little advance prep work can ensure a more productive interview and a more thoughtful finished product.

In addition to these steps to prepare in advance, the following tips can help lead to a smoother interview:

  1. Aim for brevity. A reporter might ask a question that calls for a long, detailed answer, but it’s not always helpful because then the reporter will be forced to spend far more time “separating the wheat from the chaff” than they ordinarily would have to. It’s great for a reporter to get as much information as possible for their story, but consider that every journalist has a word count limit for their stories. Sometimes long, detailed answers turn into garrulous, rambling nonsense. Aiming for brevity with succinct responses that convey the right and relevant information makes the journalist’s job easier and keeps the interview on track.

  2. Don’t talk off the record. This is a fairly fundamental principle to any interview. Journalists are present to receive all relevant information pertaining to their story, damning or not. They’re not interviewing you for the sake of conversation. Plus, if you speak off the record, you risk saying something that could put you at risk because sometimes a journalist will publish your remarks anyway, whether it’s a questionable practice or not. In addition, speaking off the record can lead to a nebulous place; after all, if it’s never communicated, how do you know when you’re back on the record or not? Misunderstandings about on- and off-the-record can lead to a myriad of blunders, so it’s best to keep all your comments on the record.

  3. You don’t have to answer every question. Sometimes you’ll be faced with a question that you won’t be able to answer for several reasons. You might not be the best person to answer it, as someone is more qualified or has more authoritative knowledge on the subject. And that’s okay! You don’t have to pretend to know the answer. You also may not be able to answer for legal reasons, or because it could mean trouble for you or who or what you’re representing. In this case, it’s better not to say, “No comment,” since this comment raises suspicions. It could still raise suspicions, but it’s better to say, “I can’t answer that at this time,” or, “I’m not in a position to answer this question,” or something similar. If applicable, explain why you can’t answer the question.

  4. Avoid saying “like” – especially too many times. We’ve all seen this before, especially in high school and college lectures. And it never gets less painful to hear. Imagine you’re quoted in a newspaper article that has “like” three times in one sentence, or worse – in a video interview, where the reporter can’t even edit out your “likes.” It can make you look unprofessional, less-than-qualified, or unpresentable. It’s even worse if it makes you look inarticulate. A similarly wicked habit is saying, “You know?” at alarming frequencies. Avoid these rhetorical mistakes at all costs!

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