The demeanour and style you adopt when being interviewed on television or radio can often depend on the country where you’re being interviewed and the type of news station that’s putting you in front of the camera or microphone.
This should also influence the sort of words you use.
It would take a year to audit every news station in the world to assess what particular style of interviewing they go for.
(Sorry, big mistake by me in that last sentence. On numerous occasions I’ve told participants on our Media Training courses not to use the word “audit” unless it involves a bunch of accountants going over the company’s books. For example, you don’t “audit” working conditions in your factory. You “inspect” them or “monitor” them).
Anyway, where were we?
A lot of television and radio stations in some parts of the world are quite deferential in the way they conduct interviews. Questioning is quite light and ultra-respect is shown towards the interviewee.
Too many pleasantries can be exchanged between interviewer and interviewee.
That’s not the style in the United Kingdom, the United States and many European countries. The approach of many news channels in these parts of the world is more brusque and down-to-earth. Let’s get down to the basics of this interview straightaway, will be the approach of the interviewer and the production team.
This means that an interviewee has to be careful about the words they use when starting an interview.
Let’s say you’re being interviewed live on a breakfast television news programme because your company has just had to sack 400 employees. The newspapers are blasting the story all over their front pages. The trade unions are up in arms. Employees are demanding to know why the sackings are taking place when, according to one of this morning’s newspapers, the Chief Executive Officer has just awarded himself a 20% pay rise.
If you are the spokesperson for this company, who’s agreed to be interviewed, you need to be careful about your choice of words when commencing an interview.
Let’s say the presenter of the news programme (let’s call her Mary) begins the interview with the following question: “What do you have to say to the 400 people who are now without jobs through no fault of their own?”
The following is exactly the wrong response to come back with: “Thank you, Mary, for that. It’s a very good question. Thank you, also, for inviting me onto your programme this morning. It’s a great privilege.”
Those words are cringing.
Firstly, in this situation you are being interviewed because you and your company are under fire. You are in the hot seat. There are questions out there that require an answer from you.
The interviewer is there to get answers to questions that members of the public would put to the company spokesperson if they were face-to-face with him or her. Employees of the company who are being sacked also have questions to which they require answers.
Furthermore, in such circumstances, don’t begin your answer by using the interviewer’s first name. That smacks of the interviewee trying to cosy up to the interviewer by flattering them, in the hope of getting easy questions.
Secondly, never complement an interviewer. Of course “it’s a very good question”. It’s a blindingly obvious question. Moreover, interviewers are paid to put “good questions” to interviewees. That’s their role in life. By flagging this up, the interviewee is sending out another signal that they are desperately trying to get onside with the presenter.
Thirdly, leave out all the nonsense about it being a “privilege” to be on that morning’s programme. No, it’s not. You’ve been invited onto the programme because you have questions to answer. Language like this is an obvious sign that the interviewee is trying to avoid the question.
The other sort of language that does not go down well in an interview is where the interviewee blatantly, and too obviously, tries to redirect the course of the interview down a path that they want to go, rather than answering the questions the news presenter wants answered.
An interviewee should never forget that, if they’ve agreed to do an interview, they’ve accepted the right of the news channel’s presenter to put any question they see fit to the interviewee.
So, let’s go back to the 400 redundancies just announced by your company.
The interviewer might well commence the exchange with your company spokesperson with questions relating to: the reasons for the sackings; what compensation will be made available to the fired workers; what help is being offered to those now out of work to find new jobs: possibly several other questions in the same area.
You do your best to answer these questions, having expected them and prepare for them.
Then, the interviewer moves on to more dangerous territory, namely the 20% pay rise awarded to the Chief Executive Officer on the same day that the redundancies were announced.
It’s at moments like this that you tend to hear responses from the interviewee that in effect challenge the right of the interviewer to ask such a question.
“I’m not here today to discuss the salary level of our company’s Chief Executive Officer.”
That’s one sort of sentence you often hear in reply to such a question.
Or it could be:
“That’s not the purpose of this interview.”
“We need to move the discussions back to what we are doing to help the workers affected by today’s announcement”.
The worst-case scenario is that the spokesperson replies by saying:
“I’m here today to speak about the assistance being offered by the company to those workers being repurposed.”
For a start, the word “repurposed” to describe the status of an employee who’s just been sacked from his or her job, with all the repercussions that has for their livelihood and their family, is arguably the coldest, most inaccurate, corporate, jargon-ridden piece of language to have been invented.
Whichever one of these phrases the interviewee might use, they all send out two signals.
Firstly, it leaves the viewers or listeners with a clear impression that the spokesperson is trying to duck the issue of the CEO’s pay grade.
Secondly, phrases like this really annoy interviewers. Their reaction is that the interviewee is trying to hijack the interview. A good interviewer will not tolerate this. Not only will they insist on their question about the CEO’s salary being answered; they will keep asking the same question over and over again, thereby further exposing that the spokesperson is trying to avoid the topic.
Furthermore, by responding with the kind of phrases listed above, the spokesperson is irritating the interviewer to such an extent that the questions that follow might get even tougher.
Another area of language to avoid using in interviews or words that are tentative, hesitant or overcautious.
This often happens when an interviewee is very certain about the answer they wish to give in response to a question, but then the words they use do not reflect that certainty.
Let’s say the company mentioned above but that’s just fired hundreds of its staff does have in place a very effective and clearly thought-through programme to find alternative employment for its sacked workers. The interviewer asks the company spokesperson about this.
Question: “Just how effective will this programme be?”
Answer: “I think it will be very effective.”
If the spokesperson, as he or she is on this occasion, is absolutely certain in their own mind that the employment assistance program will be very effective and will result in many fired workers finding new jobs, then the words “I think” just do not work. This sounds like a lack of conviction on the part of the interviewee, as though the company is putting out the statement without much substance behind it. In other words, the programme to assist workers is a bit wishy-washy or even a bunch of lies.
A far more convincing reply would be: “This programme is going to work without fail.” Words like that leave no doubt in the mind of the audience that the spokesperson believes very firmly in what they are saying and that the programme will be effective.
The same principle applies when it comes to saying, “I don’t think…”
This type of language simply doesn’t work when a spokesperson is trying to reject an allegation, an assertion or claim made by an interviewer in one of their questions.
The news presenter might put the following question to the company spokesperson: “Some people might feel that this program to assist fired workers is merely a PR gimmick to try to make your company look good”.
In response to a question like that, you do not want to reply with words like: “I don’t think that’s the case.” That suggests the spokesperson really does not have any faith at all in the staff programme, or at least isn’t fully convinced by it. Far better language to use would be along the lines of: “That’s absolutely not the case” or “I disagree completely”. In other words, leave your viewers or listeners in no doubt where you stand.
Finally, don’t use language that suggests you are irritated or angry with the interviewer.
It’s often the responsibility of an interviewer to take an interviewee into areas where they do not want to go. Questions need to be asked that the spokesperson does not want put to them. Interviews may stray beyond the topic that the interviewee understood he or she was to be questioned about. That’s all part and parcel of journalism and a free press.
I recall from when I used to present news programmes that my one dread in life was emerging from the studio when the programme went off the air, only to be confronted by my editor and crucified with words like: “Why on earth did you not ask that guy about X”.
Therefore, when an interviewee is confronted with a question they don’t want, it’s best not to reflect that discomfort in the language you use in reply. Consequently, phrases like: “Can we please stick to the subject of this interview”; “I wasn’t invited in here this morning to talk about that”; or “This is not the purpose of this interview” should not be used.
Again, it’s up to the interviewer to decide what questions should be asked, not the interviewee.
Finally, there’s language that sounds like advertising or PR. This is another instance where the spokesperson’s language can be a turn-off for those tuned in, while flagging up to the news presenter that this interviewee is just trying to exploit their four minutes on the air by trying to use it as a marketing exercise.
Let’s say your company, instead of having just fired 400 people, is today announcing the launch of a new product – the first of its kind in this particular sector. You might, for example, be the spokesperson for a bank that’s today announcing the launch of a new current account with the highest interest rate of any bank account in the country.
Don’t kick off the interview with words like, “We’re very excited about our new current account.”
Who cares? The degree of excitement within your bank is of no interest whatsoever to the viewer or listener.
As an audience member, all that’s going through my mind as I listen to this spokesperson on the radio while eating my breakfast, is: “How will this new account benefit me and my family? Is it worth switching over?”
This being the case, it’s better to start the interview with something like: “Our new current account comes with an interest rate that outstrips any other bank and means you, the listener, could afford to take your partner out to dinner once a month and let the interest pay for the meal.”
Use those words and your audience sits up and listens.
Having said that, I think I might have gone a bit too far with my example about the new bank account.
Can anyone remember when we were last paid enough interest on our bank accounts to be able to afford a dinner-for-two once a month?