That old saying ‘forewarned is forearmed’ can be applied to many fields – and most especially to when you’re being interviewed by a journalist.
Journalists are generally pretty skilled at asking questions in such as way that will get their subjects talking – whether they want to or not!
But if you’re forearmed – not just by preparing in advance what you want to say, but also with what the journalist might ask – you’re much more likely to go into the interview feeling more confident, be able to take the control and make the points which are important to you and your organization.
Most questions fall into seven broad categories, and once you can recognize them, you then can work out how to answer them well, in a way that delivers your key messages effectively.
1. Open questions
Any question starting with who, what, where, when, how and why (and not forgetting ‘tell me about’). There’s normally no way you can answer these questions with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
“What does your company do?”
They are often asked at the beginning of an interview, so they give you a great opportunity to take control of an agenda, talk at length and really get your message across.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve asked a question starting ‘tell me about’ working on TV programmes such as Remembrance Sunday, to encourage people to talk about their experiences.
Do beware, though, as they can be used to trap you.
“When will the chief executive resign?”
“Why didn’t you call in expert help when you knew there was a problem?”
2. Closed questions
A closed question is one that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:
‘Do you think that your company provides good media training courses?’
Does your company also offer video production as one of its services?’
(the answer to both these is ‘yes’ by the way)
The way to spot these is that they generally invert the pronoun and verb in a sentence, so they might start with ‘Is it …?’, ‘Do you …’, ‘Will you …?’, ‘Have you …?’ or ‘Has your …?’.
When you answer them, it’s generally advisable to expand on what you’re saying and don’t just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, particularly in a print interview where your answer might be turned into a quote by the journalist anyway.
Sometimes, however, you will disarm the interviewer by simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which can be very powerful.
3. Leading questions
These invite you to make judgments about your activities, and are highly likely to be asked if you’re under fire for some reason.
“Your track record running this hospital is hardly one to be proud of is it?”
In these circumstances, it’s probably best to ignore the premise of the question and deal with the issues factually, clearly refuting the points made. So you might list your achievements and describe the measures you have taken to overcome the current difficulties.
4. Incomprehensible questions
Interviewers do sometimes get in a muddle, especially if they know little about the subject of the interview. Don’t judge a journalist too harshly in these circumstances – they may have had only a moment’s notice of the interview and had no time to research. Rather than pointing it out the journalist’s ignorance, take the chance to answer the question you hoped they would ask, and deliver one of your key messages.
5. Multi-element questions
This is sometimes the sign of an inexperienced or over keen interviewer:
“With me now is Barack Obama, the President of the United States. So Mr President, can you tell me how you defeated the Republicans, but it’s all going a bit wrong now isn’t it, are you concerned about how the Democrats will do in this week’s elections, and what does it feel like to be the first black president of the United States?
Just pick the nicest question – ie, the one which will allow you to get your messages out best – and answer that.
6. Hypothetical Questions
The type of thing you may face from an aggressive current affairs journalist.
“Will you resign if the investigation proves that your department approved that shipment of illegal arms?”
To deflect this type of question, simply refuse to be drawn and turn the conversation to a positive point, repeating the statement you have made to other reporters.
7. The Cul-de-sac Question
This is designed to catch you out, no matter what you say.
“Mr Mullins, your organisation is responsible for leaking sensitive medical records. As managing director, you must surely be considering resignation?”
The only thing to do is refute both parts of this question – and stick to your own agenda.
Whatever kind of question you are asked, the most important thing in any media interview is to remember the reason you agreed to it – to promote yourself and your business or organisation. Good preparation – both in anticipating questions and in deciding on and polishing your key messages – will make that task far far easier.
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