How to prepare for an interview

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Photo of microphones for a media interview

"Chance favours only the prepared mind," Louis Pasteur once said. And success in a media interview really favours the prepared mind.

There are too many examples to count of prominent public figures who thought they could wing it, went in front of the cameras unrehearsed...and blew it. And that has real consequences. "Blew it" can look like a day of off-message floundering in the middle of an election campaign; a week of damage control; or even defeat on a critical issue, or the end of a career.

With the stakes so high, why wouldn't you take the time to prepare and rehearse? Here are some key steps to follow, and some advice to keep in mind, as you set the stage for a successful interview.

  • Anticipate tough questions. Brainstorm the worst questions you’re likely to face in advance, and prepare for them. This can be difficult if your mind is firmly “inside the tent”; it may be useful to bring someone in from outside the organization — someone with solid media experience and a willingness to tell you things you may not want to hear. (That’s the role Spaeth should have played, and very clearly didn’t.)
  • Be honest with yourself. Are your answers really effective? Will they withstand a follow-up question? Denial can be a powerful thing, but it’s no friend when you’re trying to prepare for a potentially hostile interview.
  • What information do they have? And what might they have? There are good reasons organizations keep some information confidential: bargaining strategy and personal privacy, for instance. But you need to be prepared in case some of that information has leaked, and know how you’ll handle it.
  • Know how you’ll deal with the unexpected questions. By definition, you don’t know what those questions will be — but you should know how you’ll respond when you’re caught off-guard. “I’m not aware of that, and I’ll need to examine it and get back to you,” for example, gives you the time to give a surprise question the consideration it deserves.
  • Rehearse. Practice, practice, practice. Being able to answer confidently and clearly will keep you on track. (That’s especially true the fourth or fifth time a reporter asks you the same question in a different way.) And you won’t have to look to your media coach for guidance during the interview.
  • Avoid antagonism. A reporter isn’t your friend, but they aren’t your enemy, either. They’re a professional with a job to do. Can you push back politely against a question with a mistaken premise? Of course. But verbal swipes at a reporter hurt you, not them.
  • Don’t say “You can’t use that.” They can, and they will — especially if they have you on tape telling them not to. If you want to try an answer again, there’s nothing lost by asking. And if you made a factual error, the reporter will likely appreciate you explaining why your answer was incorrect, and offering to redo it.
  • There’s a difference between media coaching and “being coached.” Your media coach prepares you to deliver your message, as effectively as possible. What you say should feel comfortable, natural — and right for you.
  • Be honest. Never, never lie. (And don’t formulate an oh-so-clever response that technically is true if you parse it just so.) Once you lose someone’s trust, whether they’re a reporter or part of your audience, it’s very difficult to get it back.