The Questions Never Matter: Prepare for an Interview as You Would a Presentation

When invited or assigned to participate in a press interview, most sources anticipate and prepare for the encounter to unfold in one of three ways: a conversation, a deposition or a Q &A.  All three approaches are dangerous.

Consider the typical behavior associated with each category, and the psychological dynamics that follow:

•    Conversation
Conversations are imprecise in three ways: They are usually unstructured, employ pronouns and verbal shorthand, such as business jargon and acronyms, and are often full of sentence fragments. Plus, one’s impulse in a conversation is to be conventionally polite, responding helpfully to questions and ceding control.
•    Deposition
Deposition protocol requires responding to questions with in the same restrictive and narrow parameters in which they are asked and answering “yes” or “no” rather than elaborating.
•    Q & A
The Q & A format sets up an expectation that the questioner supplies the agenda and drives the interaction. All control is awarded to the interviewer and the subject’s inclination is to supply answers accordingly.

Note that each scenario relies heavily on the journalist, with an implicit expectation or hope that he or she is well-intended, thoroughly knowledgeable about the topic, prepared, experienced in the craft, skilled at eliciting and organizing information and then interpreting or documenting it precisely.

A tall order, especially for someone juggling multiple deadlines in a 24-hour news cycle.

A Radical Strategy

The common complaint about being misquoted is often erroneous; more likely, the quote—in and of itself—is accurate, but it appears in a context of the reporters choosing, not the source’s, because the reporter directed and crafted the interview.

To interview more successfully and with a more predictable outcome, one must take a more active and assertive stance in the exchange and keep control. In other words:
You should prepare for an interview as you would a presentation.

Why do this? Well, think about how you would prepare for any business presentation: Would you simply show up, in the meeting room or auditorium, and say:

“Ok, I’m ready; go ahead and ask me questions”.

You would not. You would determine and strategically consider many things:

•    Your audience
•    How to introduce the topic
•    Your objective(s)
•    Your message(s)
•    Examples, anecdotes, data and context to support those messages
•    Colorful language and/or characters
•    A clear summary
•    A strong and memorable closing

If you are concerned about the prospect of managing a reporter’s questions, you may be assured of two things: One, that you will answer many in the course of your presentation; and secondly, if you are interrupted by unexpected or undesirable questions you can briefly answer, recast or deflect those questions and continue your presentation.

And, recognize that most journalists will be relieved, rather than offended, if you take the lead in this manner, as you will be laying out a compelling story, clearly and concisely, rather than wandering or rambling and leaving the burden of structure and narrative to the reporter. Many reporters are well aware that their subjects may be coached or media-trained and they understand it is all part of the process.

Mechanics of Delivery

If we accept the premise that one can’t control a reporter, to what extent can one control an interview? Your odds increase by controlling the reporter’s notebook.

Consider this: If you fail or decline to say something, it will not end up in the notebook (or tape recorder) and if words are not in the notebook, they will not show up in the story. But to see the words you want to say in print, you need to move them from your mouth to the reporter’s notebook. You need to repeat and recapitulate them many times.

To do this successfully, one must control the agenda (themes) and words (quotes) by:

•    Knowing what you will say—not kind of what you hope you’ll get around to saying if you get the chance but exactly what you want to say.
•    Know how to say it well—preferably with clever contradiction, colorful language, compelling characterizations
•    Find, take or make opportunities to say it
•    Say goodbye.

The Rule of Three

In creating your messages (think of them as themes or topic sentences, each with its own headline) stick to approximately three: It’s an accessible amount, allowing substance; too few will leave you short on content, too many may confuse the reporter—or even yourself.

Discipline yourself to prepare and speak the way reporters write: conclusion (headline) first, context second and examples third.

Then, begin the interview by asserting control and enumerating your three topics (“First, let’s talk about retirement trends in teenagers; second, stock investments for preteens and third, offshore accounts for kindergartners”)—and do not go into context, detail or anecdote until all three are delivered plainly. If you use this technique effectively, the reporter is likely to write down the numbers 1-2-3 in their book and take your words down with them. Then, in the same order, elaborate fully on each point, signaling again with numbers as you move to the next one or repeat and recap to summarize all three.

Enumerating each message allows all three to go into the notebook—organized as you crafted them. This technique will also serve to keep you on track, and defers any questions until you have completed your presentation. Think of this format as a press conference, where you wouldn’t invite questions until a statement was fully read.

Of course, control does not exclude courtesy: You should be cordial in your manner at all times. No reporter appreciates an overly authoritarian or reflexively combative subject. At the close of your presentation, thank the journalist graciously.

This was excerpted from PR News' Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. This article was written by Raleigh Mayer, who is currently a senior fellow at the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership, a senior associate with Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the principal at Raleigh Mayer Consulting. To order this guidebook or find out more information about it, go to