Media interviews can be stressful. After all, there’s a lot on the line. And while no two people are exactly the same, as someone who helps coach people to do better media interviews for a living, I can tell you that there are some very common sources of interview anxiety. Here are the most common reasons people are stressed out about their media interviews (and some tips for minimizing that stress so that your interview goes well) and you can get that great coverage you’re hoping for:
Worry #1: They could ask me anything
This is the biggest source of anxiety prior to an interview. Your mind starts racing with all the things they ‘might’ ask you and you spiral down a rabbit hole of terrible hypothetical topics. In reality, a media interview is a negotiated interaction. If it’s a proactive story you’re pitching, you know what the topic is. If it’s a reactive story where they’re calling you, the reporter should give you a clear overview of the focus of their story. Once you know the focus, it’s your job to craft some high-quality remarks that cater to that focus and tell an actual story that the reporter’s audience would find interesting. Could they go off script and ask you something totally out of the blue? Well, sure. Hypothetically. But in most cases, the questions should be fairly predictable. And if they do ask you something way off base and unrelated, you don’t need to feel compelled to serve up an answer. This isn’t a police interrogation. You can say something like, “That’s not my area of expertise so I’d be hesitant to comment on that.” or “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on behalf of….” or “That’s a bit outside what we agreed to speak about today. We could certainly look into setting up another interview but we’d have to run it through our media relations people again to make sure we’re getting you the answers you need.”
In almost all cases, however, if you simply provide three or four great answers that are related to the focus of the story, that will be the end of the interview.
Worry #2: I won’t have the interviewer’s questions in advance
I hear this a lot. I also hear the flip side of this, where people become very excited when they get the reporter’s question in advance. I would recommend that you spend more time thinking about your answers than the reporter’s questions. Again, we know what the focus of the story is. We can predict what most of the questions will be. Spend your time creating high-quality answers - answers that are short, concise, contain examples, points of view, stats, etc.
Henry Kissinger had this great line way back in the 1970s: “Who’s got questions for my answers?” It’s a line that makes people chuckle. But that’s the right approach.
And when people DO get the questions in advance? What happens almost every time is that the reporter’s questions change once the interview starts. This isn’t a malicious tactic. You probably just said something they found interesting or wanted to follow up on.
In my experience, a more useful thing to ask a reporter prior to an interview is: Can you please give me a sense of the types of questions you’d like me to answer for your readers/listeners/viewers. The information you get can then help steer you in a direction. But always spend more time writing answers than sweating about questions.
Worry #3: I had a bad media interview experience before and it’s got me doubting myself
We’ve all had a bad experience. But get back on that horse! If you go back and study the interaction and your coverage, I’ll bet you can figure out why the bad experience/coverage happened. Did you not prep enough? Did we not anticipate key questions? Answers that were too long? Too short? Not enough examples? Did we repeat the journalist’s negative words or speculate or speak on behalf of another person/group? These are some of the most common missteps but the list goes on. Figure out the specific reason your interview went off the rails and then make a point of working on that to fix it for next time. Practice interviews and media training can help.
Worry #4: Reporters are out to get us
No, they’re not. Well, most of the time. Unless your company is doing something offside and/or trying to hide unethical or inappropriate behaviour, the vast majority of journalists are just trying to get some quotes from you to tell their story. A lot of times, though, organizations have a defensive mindset when it comes to media relations, thinking that it’s going to be adversarial or antagonistic. Guess what happens when you treat the interaction as if they’re trying to get you? Your answers are probably going to come up as short, curt and defensive. Which is going to prompt them to dig and may make them think you have something to hide. Vicious circle ensues.
Try wiping the slate clean and creating your story/messages based on your audience and your understanding of the outlet and the stories they typically cover. Don’t think of the reporter as your enemy. Think of them as a filter through which you’ll pass your content for your ultimate audience.
At the same time, it’s important to understand that while they’re probably not out to get you, they’re also not out to help you. Journalists are not there to promote you or be your buddy. If you say something you shouldn’t, chances are that’s going to be very quotable.
So they’re not out to get you. And they’re not out to help you. Where does that leave you? As the architect of your interview. Don’t take a passive role. Figure out what you want to say and do your homework and prep in advance.
Worry #5: I talk too much when I’m nervous
The average media interview is way longer than it should be. And one of the reasons is that many spokespeople don’t know how to tell a story in a concise way. Think of the last paper you read or TV/radio broadcast you saw/heard. How long were the answers? They’re quite short. Often 10-15 seconds long. Sometimes double that for a live, studio TV interview. So why are we giving answers that are two minutes long? Before the interview, take a stopwatch and time how long it takes to read your messages. If any of them are longer than 20 seconds, you need to start chopping. Deliver your message, then stop. The reporter will ask you another question. It’s a great opportunity to breathe, to regroup and to think about your next answer.
Worry #6: I don’t want to have a ‘deer in the headlights’ moment
Fair enough. No one wants this to happen. But there are a few things you can do to prevent this unpleasant situation from bringing your interview to a grinding halt. First, prepare. Spend some time considering the topic, writing your content and doing a practice interview or two in-house. That will get you into the cadence and flow of a media interview.
Still, now and then, you can get a question you simply were not expecting and it can feel like a punch in the head. When that happens, ask yourself what the REAL question behind the question is. In almost every situation, the question that you might not be ready/equipped to answer will be related to a large issue/trend that you can comment on. Speak to THAT issue and you will be able to keep the interview rolling.
For example, if there’s a security incident at your facility and the reporter asks what time people will be let back into the building, some spokespeople would get stuck on this question since they don’t know the time. Cue deer in the headlights moment, stammering, etc.
But in this situation, what’s the issue behind the question? It’s about safety. So try this answer: “We want to ensure that everyone in the building is safe and accounted for. We are working with the authorities to make sure they have everything they need. Once they make the determination that it’s safe to return to the building, we will communicate that to our employees.” Next question please…
Much of the time, the anxiety people feel about media interviews is unfounded. You can usually trace their worry back to one of these points listed above. But if you spend some time really preparing and getting yourself in the mindset for an interview, you’ll realize that many of these worries will simply melt away. The result? Greater confidence and better media coverage.