I help people get into the media by thinking like a reporter. As a news anchor turned PR specialist, I know that if you tell your story the way a journalist would tell it, you have a better chance of being heard.
Sometimes, though, you have to think like a journalist in order to prevent your story being given a spin you don’t want. Reporters need to get a story, and they can be ruthless with you if they think they are on to something big.
That’s why you need to brush up on your interview skills before you’re faced with your big media appearance.
Here are some of the secrets journalists use to get you to reveal more than you want to, and how you can avoid falling into their traps.
1. Taking control. Journalists like to take control of interviews. Don’t be intimidated. Take control yourself. Start by establishing the terms of the interview. When a reporter calls you to be interviewed, ask them questions before you get started. Who do you represent? What’s the focus or slant of the story? Are you interviewing anyone else? What’s your deadline? These questions will give you information to prepare. When you give the interview, stay in control of your message. Make the points you want to make. If the interviewer doesn’t ask you about something you want to say, then just say it anyway.
2. Time to think. No reporter actually thinks a person just drops everything they are doing to be interviewed. But interviewees often think that’s the case and give some unprepared answers that they regret later. Avoid this by arranging a mutually convenient time to get back to the reporter. Then get all your ducks in a row before you talk. During the interview itself, don’t be afraid to pause for breath while you compose your answer. You can also create some time to think by saying something else. It could be answering the question you wish they had asked. Or make a positive comment that fills the time, such as, “That’s a very good question; I’m glad you asked me about that.”
3. Moving on. Journalists like to control the interview agenda and will often move on to a new subject before you have said everything you want to say. Don’t be afraid to go back and conclude an earlier point that you didn’t finish explaining. For print publications and pre-recorded TV and radio interviews, remember that you can always start over if you misspeak or lose the thread of what you are saying. Even in a live interview, you can restate your point: just say something like “Let me reiterate that point” or “Let’s make it clear”.
4. Silence is golden. Silence is a tactic reporters use to get you to keep talking. A pregnant pause will often prompt an interviewee to blurt out something or to fill the gap by saying more than they really want to say. When you’re done answering the question, stop. Allow for the silence. If the reporter wants more information, let them ask for it.
5. Holding a mirror. Some journalists use a technique called “mirroring.” This involves reflecting your attitudes, words or style back at you to make you feel more comfortable. But being too relaxed may lead you to reveal something you normally wouldn’t mention. If you notice a reporter mimicking you verbally and nonverbally, you may want to take your time answering.
6. Throw-away questions. Many reporters have what’s called ‘throw-away questions’ that really mean nothing to the story. These can be used to feel an interviewee out. Watch your words even if the question sounds irrelevant.
7. Off the record. In movies and TV shows, people are always telling reporters secrets “off the record” in the full confidence that they won’t get printed. Well, don’t try that one at home, folks. Even when the reporter is chatting casually to you, assume everything is on the record.
8. Pretending to know. Some journalists will ask question that make you think they know more than they really do. If the reporter has made a false assumption, speak up. If not, don’t help the journalist confirm it unless you’ve made a conscious choice to do so.
Unfortunately, all of these warnings can make people so paranoid that they don’t give good interviews. So I have one final piece of advice: don’t be paranoid, be prepared.