For a few months this past spring, I taught a graduate-level course on media relations — sort of a crash course in what to do (and not to do!) when working with media.
Not everyone who took the class will have jobs that require them to go on the record, but for students who want to work in and around politics (ie: the students in my course), it’s good to know some of the basics about how the news industry works, and what they can do to be helpful to journalists while still trying to hold some control over the message.
More recently, I had some friends in a mastermind group ask about getting prepped for podcast interviews. And as I updated my own “in the news” page, I realized that over time, I’d had to learn a lot of these lessons myself!
I obviously can’t cover everything in a single blog post that gets covered in a six-week intensive course, but in case it’s helpful, here are the basic basics that you should consider when you’ve got an interview lined up …
- You might be able to ask for a list of questions (but you might not!)
Helpful, right? The short version is that if the interview is with an established news entity (newspaper, TV or radio station, major online outlet), they won’t share questions in advance, and you shouldn’t ask. It’s your job to know your subject and to be able to anticipate most of the questions you’ll get.
If it’s a more casual interview — maybe you’ve been asked to be a guest speaker in a class or you have a friend who wants to interview you for their podcast — then you can always ask about what kinds of questions they will want you to answer (in fact, many people will offer this, as a well to help you prepare).
- You can always figure out what the core questions will be, though
That’s because news is for and about people, and people tend to want to know the same things! In “hard” news, these are described as the 5Ws and 2Hs … who, what, when, where, why, how, how much (or how many). You see and hear these all the time in interviews:
… who will benefit from this new after-school program?
… what‘s the difference between the old system and the one?
… when will your new products launch?
… where can people go for more information?
… why did you decide on this approach?
… how did you first get the idea?
… how much does it cost? how many jobs will it create?
You get the idea. These are the basic building blocks of interviews. Whether you’re selling yourself as a candidate in a job interview or are doing a radio spot to promote your new food truck, you need to spend some time thinking about the 5Ws and 2Hs and how they apply to you. That means thinking about the questions and the answers!
- Here are a few sample question formats to get you started
There are all kinds of different questions formats — open-ended, double-barrelled, leading, etc. — but the good news is that unless it’s your actual job to do interviews and respond to media requests, you don’t need to worry about the specifics. Remember: folks in media jobs spend years practicing how to craft good questions, and you could spend a lot of time trying to anticipate all of the questions you might get asked. Don’t do that!
Unless you’ve got an investigative journalist and a camera crew banging on your front door, you’ll probably be okay with sticking to the basics (and if you do find yourself in water that hot, trust me, you need more and better advice than you can get from a 500-word blog post).
Beyond the 5Ws and 2Hs, give some thought to these kind of questions …
… do you agree?
A favourite of mine, this is where the interviewer will cite a fact, a piece of common wisdom, or a well-known quote, and ask if you agree with it. Example: “There are studies that show that women routinely underestimate their qualifications — is that true in your experience? Variations: “… do you that’s accurate?” “… would you say that’s fair?”
Can you tell us about …
If you’re hyperliteral (or one of my kids) you might mistake this for a yes/no question — it isn’t one! Questions that start with “Can you tell us about” give you a chance to tell your story in your own words. It’s usually followed up with a second, more specific question. Example: “Can you tell us about your latest book? What was the inspiration for the setting?” Variations: “Can you explain …” “Can you describe …”
What’s your favourite …
This is part of a larger set of like/dislike questions … they seem like they’ll be easy to answer, but actually require a lot of forethought. Example: “What’s your favourite part of your job?” Variations: “What don’t you like about …” “Are there any drawbacks to ….” “If you could design an ideal …” “What’s one the best …” “Can you describe one of the worst …”
… how did it feel?
Another one that looks easy, but isn’t! How you feel about a situation — good or bad — is deeply personal, which puts these kind of questions in the category of “only things that you can answer.” Give some thought as to how much you want to share, here. Example: “You were the first person in your family to graduate from college — how did that feel?”
Have you ever been surprised …
Don’t be fooled by the word “surprise!” With this kind of question, an interviewer is trying to figure out how you’ve reacted to situations in the past (and/or how you might react to situations in future). Example: “What’s the most surprising thing about your new job?” Variations: “Were you shocked to learn about …” “If you could it all over, what would you change?”
What goes into …
Ah, the process question. You (hopefully) love your work, and will be tempted to go on (and on) (and on) in your answer. Resist the temptation by practicing a short, tight, 15-30 second answer. Example: “What goes into creating a new recipe?” Variations: “How do you decide …” “What influences your …” “Can you take us through the process …”
Nearly every interview will end with an open-ended question, such as “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” This is a chance to circle back to your main point, to drop in your call-to-action, to mention any key pieces of info (like dates or deadlines). Just be careful not to drop anything here that shouldn’t be public — there’s a reason reporters like to close with this one! Example: “Anything else our listeners should know?”
If I have an “anything else” of my own to add, it’s this: remember that people are interested in you and your story! Media — whether your local paper or podcasting pal — have reached out to you for a reason. Yes, you should think about the questions you’ll likely be asked and how you’d like to answer, and sure, it’s a good idea to practice your answers out loud. Then take a break, go for a walk, eat a cookie.
You’ve earned it. ❤️