How To Prepare for an Interview
Every interview is different. No matter how many interviews you’ve done, each has its own dynamic controlled by the people, topic, format, timing or yeah, even something as simple as the weather. I’ve found that one of the biggest influences can be who a reporter has interviewed first on a topic, something often outside the control of a media relations team. With all that in mind, when we sit down to discuss how to prepare for an interview, our time is best served by focusing on a few core elements.
HOW TO USE TALKING POINTS
Whether you are preparing to speak with the media or preparing someone else for the interview, you need to focus most of your energy on talking points. Although derided by some and used differently by various public relations practitioners, talking points are simply one of the most valuable tools to help someone focus during an interview. Used appropriately, they also help a journalist identify the most important information in an interview.
No one will ever be able to communicate everything they want to say in an interview and even if they did, the interview would be a mess. Generally, a reporter will be able to pull two or three quotes or key ideas from an interview and build a story around those. Everything else is additional information. If you share too much extraneous information, it becomes more challenging to ensure those two or three quotes align with the most important takeaway you want a journalist to understand. So, by focusing on a few key talking points during an interview, and repeating them if necessary, everyone has an easier time focusing on the most important information.
WRITE DOWN AND PRACTICE TALKING POINTS BEFORE THE INTERVIEW
To develop talking points, write down the three-to-five key points you want a journalist to walk away with. Even if you only have five minutes to prepare, spend most of that time writing these down to give them form in your mind and encourage quick recall during the interview. This also forces you to decide which information really is the most important, since you are limiting yourself to just three-to-five points. If you’re preparing someone else for the interview, spend that time discussing and practicing the talking points with them. Think quote size as well, limiting any single talking point to one or two conversational sentences. If you can’t convey the point in a sentence or two, take the time to think it through and simplify the idea or the journalist won’t be able to use the quote either. Make these talking points simple to understand, powerful statements that a journalist will want to quote. That’s how you start to make sure your key points match the two to three quotes used in the final interview.
USING TALKING POINTS DURING AN INTERVIEW
Although the actual interview will most certainly be longer and more involved than these three-to-five talking points, writing them down and focusing on them helps you focus during the interview as well. Is the interview wandering without any real direction? Help the journalist focus by emphasizing key information. Faced with a difficult question? Say what you can, but then turn to one of your main talking points to note what you feel is most important to discuss. And when a journalist asks if there’s anything you would like to add, the answer is “yes” and you make sure you’ve hit all three-to-five points. If you have, repeat one. The journalist isn’t going to use the quote twice, but it will help them recognize key information.
In practice, a sharp five minute interview clearly focused on key talking points is almost always more successful than a 30 minute wandering conversation. Without exception, people I’ve worked with are always excited when a journalist wants to talk for 30 minutes. I groan, sometimes inwardly, because it means the reporter had to spend 30 minutes looking for their quotes and key information. These are often the same people upset or confused about the quotes actually included in the final story. You are far more likely to see your talking points turned into published quotes from that shorter, focused interview.
PREPARE BEYOND COMMON INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Your talking points are the bread and butter of any interview preparation, but there will always be more to the interview itself. Dedicate some time to prepare for common interview questions to ensure you don’t make any basic mistakes. One I’ve found that trips up a lot of people is “what does your company do?” It seems basic, but people often fail to articulate it in a sentence or two. Think elevator pitch, but even shorter. If you can’t explain what your company does simply, work with someone else on your team to simplify your response. It will help outside of the interview as well.
After preparing for common interview questions and rehearsing talking points, you need to go a step further. What other questions is a journalist likely to ask? Are there any questions you are worried about or would rather they not ask? Are there any other stories related to your organization that could come up, even if not directly connected to the topic of the interview? Identify all of those other questions ahead of time and decide how you will address them before speaking with the journalist. Practice them too. This preparation is often what sets a great media relations team apart from a good one because feeling prepared for any question (even if it never actually comes up) will result in a much more confident delivery throughout the interview.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
As any good media training program will make clear, you should always expect the unexpected in an interview and build a comfort level with that ambiguity before sitting down with a journalist. No matter how thorough your preparation, there will be questions you did not anticipate. That’s not to say they’re “gotcha” questions. Rather, one of the things that makes a good interview is a conversation with a journalist and conversations, by their very nature, are organic. That’s nothing to be afraid of either. Let yourself be open to the inherent discovery that comes with an interesting conversation with someone. If you’re preparing someone else for the interview, help them understand the value of that conversational engagement and encourage them to embrace it while still leveraging their core talking points as tools to guide and focus that conversation.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
In a best case scenario, the time spent preparing for an interview will far outweigh the time spent conducting the interview itself. Just like any skill, interview skills need to be honed before they are put into practice. That means developing talking points, preparing for questions and then actually practicing them before the interview. Writing down key points and rehearsing them in your head is quite different from delivering them in a conversational manner during an interview so the more practice you can get ahead of time, the better.
If possible, rehearse the interview with your public relations team and ideally former journalists who have been on the other side of the microphone and know that trade well. If you don’t have access to a public relations team to prepare for the interview, find a colleague and have them play the part of the journalist. Don’t give them your talking points, but instead encourage them to ask the questions they think the journalist would ask. Through that process, we frequently discover even new and often important questions we overlooked in the original interview preparation and now have the opportunity to prepare for those as well before the real interview begins.