A lot of participants who take part in our media training courses ask this question: “When we do a real-life interview, can we expect questions in advance?”
Having conducted hundreds of interviews during my career, I’ve never once conveyed to an interviewee, ahead of our encounter in the studio, in their office or out in the field, the questions I intend to put to them.
There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, I have never yet gone into an interview with a list of questions to ask written down on a piece of paper in front of me, either on my knee or on a studio table. The most I ever write down is a few background points to which I might refer as the interview progresses. These will be based on the research my producer or I have carried out before the interview on the interview topic and/or the person who’ll be in front of me during the interview.
That’s because a good interview takes its own direction – it’s not too pre-planned.
The interviewer should not be tied to a specific list of questions from which he or she does not depart one inch. Instead, the course of the interview should be determined by the answers the interviewee is giving to questions and by what the interviewer is detecting about the interviewee – either in their body language or in the nature of their replies to questions.
Secondly, unless somebody is being interviewed on a really soft subject, or an issue that does not have an inch of controversy surrounding it, the spokesperson should accept the fact that any question can be thrown at him or her. That’s what interviews are all about – being accountable to the general public through the interviewer, especially if you are a business leader, the head of a public organisation, or a politician, indeed anyone who makes decisions that affect the lives of people in general. With this in mind, the interviewer will feel free to submit the spokesperson to any question they think fit to ask or feels the public wants answered.
Against this background, revealing a list of questions to a spokesperson, ahead of their taking part in the interview, goes against the grain for most experienced journalists working in front-line news.
This approach does not pertain in every country in the world however.
In some countries the media are a good deal more deferential than is the case in the United Kingdom, United States and some other countries.
This means a newspaper journalist planning to come to your office to interview you tomorrow morning will be more than happy to send you an email with a list of the ten questions they intend to ask you.
Or, the TV or radio station on which you’re due to appear would be very happy to do the same thing.
Furthermore, it’s very unlikely that the interviewer will depart from the list of questions that has been submitted to the interviewee ahead of the interview.
This is a dangerous comfort zone in which to find yourself if you are, or likely to be, a spokesperson for your company or organisation.
Getting along well with a friendly, local media in the country where you are based will not prepare you for very different circumstances should you move to another country later in your career, where the media are a good deal less kowtowing. If you’re given an easy time in a country where the media are pretty tame, it’s a huge mistake to believe that life will always be like this whenever you have encounters with journalists.
Suddenly you’re re-posted to another country where the media climate is totally different and you are ill prepared to deal with it.
There is a further note of caution to add. As a spokesperson for your company or organisation in a country where the media give you an easy time, you need to bear in mind that things will change dramatically should a controversial, hostile or negative story suddenly engulf your company. For several years you’ve had very laid-back interviews with local journalists who’ve treated you with gentility. Even when the interview was about a slightly controversial story affecting your organisation, the interviewer stuck to the questions you’d been told about in advance and left it at that.
However, if a news story about your organisation erupts that’s mega-controversial, it won’t just be the friendly local media who descend upon you. The international media might arrive in droves as well, and they will not be holding back in any interview they do with you.
The very relaxed media environment you’ve been enjoying for the past few years will not prepare you for this.
These are the reasons why you need to prepare yourself for being interviewed in a tougher media climate.
So, if you’re going to be interviewed on tomorrow’s breakfast television news, your communications officer, acting on your behalf, might well approach the news producer on the programme and ask for the questions to be sent sometime today so that you and your communications colleague can prepare your answers. You’d be lucky to get those questions in advance. As explained above, the news programme will feel under no obligation whatsoever to reveal to you beforehand what questions will be put to you by the news presenter.
Furthermore, even if a producer on the programme sends you a list of questions, there’s no guarantee that the news presenter who will conduct the interview will feel in any way duty-bound to stick to those questions. The presenter might well read through the list that has been prepared for him or her by the producer. Very often, though, those questions will be discarded in the mind of the presenter because they feel confident that they have a far more incisive line of questioning to pursue.
You’re now in a situation where, having spent some time with your communications officer preparing answers for the precise list of questions submitted to you, the news presenter goes “off piste” and asks a completely different range of questions instead.
The lesson is therefore this: never get into a mental frame of mind, ahead of being interviewed, where you feel that, having been told what the subject of the interview is all about and having been given a list of questions, the interview will not depart from this agenda in any shape or form whatsoever. That’s living in cloud cuckoo land and can leave the interviewee high and dry.
If you are a person who is, or is likely to be, interviewed regularly by the media, it’s a good idea to acquire a little bit of a journalist’s DNA, in other words the instincts that lead a journalist into pursuing a certain news story or following a certain line of questioning when conducting an interview.
If you haven’t yet acquired a few of those instincts yourself, then you need to fall back on you communications officer who should be well equipped to think through where a news presenter or a press journalist will go when conducting the interview that is being lined up for you.
If, however, your communications colleague is on holiday or off sick, here are one or two possibilities to ponder when considering where your interviewer might venture in the interview you’re about to do.
For most presenters, when you come onto their news programme, you are the representative, if not the ambassador, of the company or organisation for whom you work.
In the mind of the interviewer, any question concerning your organisation can be put to you. That means an interview can go anywhere as far as your organisation’s activities are concerned.
A news programme might be interviewing you about a new factory you are opening in the country where you are based, but then suddenly the interview changes gear when the presenter starts questioning you about a terrorist attack that took place overnight only fifty yards away from your company’s headquarters in another country on the other side of the world. You will not be fully up to speed with the details of the incident but, as you prepare for your interview, at least make yourself aware of what’s happened and be alert to the fact that this is a very likely topic that the news presenter will bring up.
In other words, during the hours before you do an interview have your radar antennae training widely. Make sure you are listening to news coverage before you go on the air, so that you’re aware of anything that might have happened that could be brought up by the interviewer.
Even if the presenter does not depart from the topic of the interview, consider whether he or she might go for a line of questioning that does you no favours at all.
If you are going on television news to be interviewed about the new factory you’ve announced today, you might retreat into a comfort zone and think that the interviewer will want to know all about the new technology you are introducing, the number of new jobs that will be available, whether you’re looking for certain graduate skills, as well as what a boost there will be to the local economy in the area where the factory is located. All very positive questions, you think.
That’s not how journalists think.
A good presenter will do a bit of digging beforehand and discover that many local residents are worried about: pollution from the factory; that the local road network cannot take the extra lorries driving in and out of the factory; or that the factory has been constructed right next door to a nursery school with all the noise and disturbance that pupils and teachers will have to endure. These are the kind of questions a good interviewer will tack on at the end of an interview, having heard from you first of all what the benefits will be of the new facility.
Actually, if the negative points mentioned above are really controversial, that’s where a good interviewer will start the interview and squeeze in the “positive” questions only at the end…if there’s time.
The lesson is, therefore, wherever you are in the world, however respectful the media, however easy the interviews you undertake, don’t be surprised how things can change if you move on to a different country or if the international media arrive on your doorstep out-of the-blue demanding answers from you.