A recorded interview can be a daunting prospect. At Econ Films and in media training courses, we have taken hundreds of economists through their first interview. Here are five tips that we share with first timers – and they are relevant for some old timers too…
If you need a snappy overview, here’s a quick video:
Tip 1. Answer the question you wish you’d been asked.
By far the best technique for keeping to your key message and making sure you aren’t caught out by questions is to follow this advice widely attributed to Robert McNamara, who was President Kennedy’s Defense Secretary during the Vietnam war.
‘Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.’
The logic is simple: For broadcast media – TV, radio, online – a journalist can’t just read your paper and quote, nor can they paraphrase. They need to record you uttering the words. So if you don’t want to be misquoted, just say what you want to say and nothing more. They can’t put in a quote that you didn’t utter – they can’t put words in your mouth.
But be warned. This rule is a good one for not being caught out but can be a bad one for making friends with the media.
It’s great for sticking on message but it is precisely the opposite of having a debate and a conversation.
It depends on your mandate: are you focused on one message or being part of a wider conversation? Often it’s a mix of the two, which is why this advice, though important, should probably not be followed to the extreme.
In the UK, politicians from both sides have been made to look silly with this advice (see below). They would argue, though, that only one answer will be used in the report so they have to make sure they get their point across in all the answers they give. So it also depends on the format of the interview.
George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer:
Ed Miliband, then leader of the Labour party and opposition:
Tip 2. Have your own questions.
- What’s the format? How long are the answers you want? Formats are getting shorter and shorter so good to know in advance. Don’t expect to be given 45 minutes.
- Who is your audience?
- Should I look at the interviewer or the camera?
- Can I get the questions in advance? (While for some journalists and some formats like live TV this is a no-no, for many it helps that you are as prepared as you can be).
If for no other reason, asking questions makes you sound like you know what you’re doing – which may help suggest a bit of authority if the journalists are a little hostile. It can also help to put you back in control if you feel a little uneasy.
Tip 3. Focus on your key takeaway.
You might care about the method but most people want to know the headline or takeaway. ‘Our research shows…’ should be an early answer. ‘Our research uses an intra-household model’ should stay at home.
Tip 4. Speak in English, not Economics.
For tips on good words and bad words, see our forthcoming guide.
Tip 5. Enjoy it.
Smile at the interviewer, smile at the camera, smile at the microphone. A smile is infectious. A smile makes you more confident. Interviews are a performance – a confident interview, like a confident performance, will be more memorable for the right reasons.