Too often we hear interviews where we suspect the interviewee has thought, “I don’t need to prepare – I really know my subject, so fire away with your questions!”.
That way lies regret or possibly disaster.
I don’t know if Jim Arbury, a fruit tree specialist at the Royal Horticultural Society, went into his interview on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme this morning with that mindset, but we would say it was one of those that fell into the “missed opportunity” category.
To be fair to Arbury, most listeners would probably have felt better informed by the interview and have had a positive view of the RHS, but oh, it could have been so much more….
Here’s the problem: expert interviewees have too much information sloshing round their brains for a three-minute live interview.
And no organisation should think their interviewee is just there to provide factual information; they should be there to raise the company’s profile, or win new customers. But to do that they need just two or three key messages. A wealth of expertise or knowledge is not enough, or rather, it’s too much.
Arbury was there to talk about a new orchard designed to safeguard rare varieties of apples – probably vaguely interesting to most listeners, but not earth-shattering.
That might explain why the interviewer, Nick Robinson, “spiced things up” by starting with what journalists call “colour” – in this case the weird names of some of these varieties: Pig’s Nose and Sugar Bush.
Cue a more lively interview…
But instead of adding to this colour by mentioning some more – Bulbous Catshead, or Bloody Ploughman perhaps – Arbury sounded a bit corporate, plus valuable time and impact was lost by repeating the question, as well as a reference to “remnant orchards” – what are they?!
The one part that did stand out was the simple, but powerful soundbite when Arbury talked about these varieties giving you “a taste back into the past”. Crisp and sweet.
But, on the whole, Robinson seemed to sense listeners were getting the verbal equivalent of a barrel of Braeburns, rather than a few glorious Grand Sultans, so he tried very hard to tease – or crowbar – out the real story from the apple-eater’s, not the specialist’s, perspective.
What about the number of apple varieties available at the RHS? Arbury mentioned the 740 at Wisley, but didn’t name any; (how I yearned to hear of a Hounslow Wonder, a Cockle Pippin or a Pixie). To compound this the brevity of the answer (a key sign of a missed opportunity) seemed to catch Robinson unawares: “Wow!” he remarked, before probably buying “thinking time” by repeating the answer.
Perhaps, with an increasing sense of the lost opportunity – or, more likely, he just had more time to fill – Robinson then asked if the public could try the rare apples – what a gift of a question! Arbury confirmed they could indeed buy them at Wisley or come to tastings. What a great way to tell a vast number of listeners why they should pop down to Wisley (and set those tills a-ringing).
But this free “plug” could so easily have gone unmentioned.
Instead, we would have suggested this message should have been right up there in Arbury’s first response – there was a way to get it in.
Why does all this matter? Well, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme has just claimed its highest ever audience figures – 7.45 million weekly listeners in the last three months of 2016. The benefits of getting an interview right – from a company’s perspective – are huge.
Arbury was knowledgeable, informative and clearly passionate and there was nothing to be ashamed of in his performance, but from a PR or comms perspective, the interview could have had, well, so much more bite.