News training: Tips for interviewers

It strikes the fear of God into some while others appear to float through it effortlessly. The media interview is one of those artificial situations that tests company spokespeople either to sink or swim.

When I was doing in-house PR for a relatively large organisation we had the luxury of our own radio room complete with headphones, microphone and ISDN connection. It meant we could offer radio stations pre-recorded, live or as-live interviews with sound quality just about as good as if we were in their studio with them.

We built some great relationships with producers and presenters at stations in the UK and elsewhere and chalked up hundreds of broadcasts.

Looking at media interviews from the journalist’s direction, and that’s what I did before going into PR, what are some key dos and don’ts? One of the basic elements is to try and get the interviewee to offer their opinion on the subject in question.

You probably already have some facts so what you are now looking for is a personal insight into what those facts mean and why they are important. A ‘word picture’ of what the person has witnessed or what they know is golden. You want to draw out of the interview the information the person is most suited to give and what your readers, listeners or viewers want to know. Don’t disregard personal anecdotes – they can stay in the memory long after figures or other details are forgotten.

While it’s perhaps tempting to have a list of prepared questions, this can make the interview stilted if you stick to them too rigidly. Even with a list you will tend to have to rephrase questions on the spot. It’s better to listen and take the lead for the next question from what the interviewee has just said. Be a good listener, know when to stay silent and, when it’s your turn, try to ask open-ended questions that are specific rather than vague. In other words, instead of saying: “Do you enjoy being a farmer?”, ask: “What are the aspects of farming you enjoy?”. With the first question you risk eliciting the classic cul-de-sac of a ‘yes, no or sometimes’ response. The second is far more likely to prompt a wider explanation.

Try also to phrase questions positively and directly. Avoid saying: “I would be grateful if you would kindly be prepared to tell me about…”. There is no time for that. Instead, just say: “Tell me about…”

This post is part of a series reflecting themes from our online practical training course for working journalists.  The course was launched recently with a video announcement by Lord Black, CPU Media Trust Chairman.

Next time, we’ll discuss good writing in journalism including the most effective intros.

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– SCOTT SINCLAIR – Deep South Media