Professional broadcasters and interviewers may make the job look easy but that comfort and confidence is hard-won through research and preparation.
So why should you, the interviewee, assume that you can simply step into the interview without a similar degree of preparation? Yet so many interviewees, because they are specialists in the subject under discussion, are under the illusion that their expertise alone will carry them through.
Certainly, they can be sure that their knowledge of the subject is greater than the interviewer. But that does not mean that in the frenzied, zig-zag course of a three-minute interview they can sure of making an impact. This is their chance to create an impression and add something new and memorable to the subject, but without considered preparation they are unlikely to succeed. There are very few people – not even skilled communicators like Tony Blair or David Cameron – who can be sure of saying exactly what they intend without preparation. Only a Boris Johnson has the chutzpah to make off-the-cuff appear on-message. Yet even he will come out of interviews knowing that greater preparation would have made his contribution more telling.
One of the momentos of my broadcasting career is a small card left behind by Tony Benn on one of the many occasions I interviewed him on TV. It was a bog-standard “how do you see the war in Iraq?” interview. He could have done it off the top of his head, at a moment’s notice, but on the card he had carefully prepared the points he wanted to make.
Effective preparation takes two forms. First, what are the two or three most important facts or messages that you want the audience to take away? Nothing too detailed or complex, and nothing that requires lengthy explanation. Your key points should be brief, relevant of course to the subject of the interview and preferably delivered in a neat soundbite.
The second form of preparation involves anticipating awkward or damaging questions. How will you tackle them? How can you turn a negative question into a more positive reply?
No interview worth doing is ever easy. But without preparation you will simply make it more difficult and more risky. Fail to prepare, and you are preparing to fail.