At face value, interviews should be simple. A reporter speaking to a subject expert about issues that their readers care about, resulting in a fulfilling experience for all involved.

But we’ve all seen an awkward interview, whether it’s Jeremy Paxman grilling a slippery politician or Quentin Tarantino threatening to ‘shut down’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

So it’s only natural to feel apprehensive about embarking on a PR programme where you will need to speak to the media as no one wants to put themselves up for a grilling.

The key thing to remember is that these are interviews for mainstream television, where big personalities clash when trying to score points – often aggressively. So don’t be put off.

Hundreds, even thousands of interviews take place every day for national, local and trade news, in addition to recorded radio interviews and podcasts.

The truth is that outside of live broadcasts it’s unlikely you’ll have read or heard a bad interview, because they would simply be cut.

So, outside of the celebrity and political pressure cookers, what are press interviews really like? What are reporters looking for? And how can you ensure that your interview goes like a dream and doesn’t turn into a nightmare?

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

The key point to remember about the press is that it’s their job to tell a story that their audience cares about.

So, if you know what their audience cares about, you can most likely have a compelling conversation that will result in good coverage.

For start-ups, especially those in the tech sector, successful interviews with important media outlets are absolutely vital to raising awareness and credibility of your brand and getting key messages to your audience.

And preparation is key. Preparation should start before the interview is even secured. You need to take the time to carefully craft and develop your messages – make them short and compelling and use plain English that everyone understands. Be prepared to bring them to life with short stories that show how your product or service has helped a business.

Next you need to know your audience. Who is the reporter? What is their level of understanding of your product or service? Have they covered this topic before?

Remember that each reporter also has their own style, so it’s worth checking out their previous material. As long as you’re well prepared most interviews will be a very positive experience for both sides.

You should also consider your own knowledge levels. Do you need to do any research to get up to speed on a certain topic or issue that the journalist wants to discuss? Do you need to tailor your message to the reporter’s audience?

If you can get into a routine and answer these questions before an interview, you will already have done most of the hard work.

An acronym I often use with clients is that reporters want you to keep it REAL:

  • Your comments must be Relevant to their story and bring something new to the table.
  • Be prepared to Educate if you’re discussing issues that require technical knowledge that the reporter is unlikely to have. Their audience may be in the same boat.
  • Prepare some Anecdotes that you can turn to. Stories, examples and case studies can provide reporters with the soundbites they need to make a story come to life.
  • Always Listen carefully to questions. Treat each one as an opportunity and remember that there are no bad questions, only bad answers.

Stay in control

With your preparation complete, you should now focus on delivering your messages during the interview. You should allow conversation to flow – it’s not an interrogation after all. But whether the interview is in person or on the phone, live or recorded, make sure you direct the conversation towards your key messages.

A classic technique is to tell a reporter what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them.

It sounds laughable, but it does work to keep you focused on delivering your key messages. However, with a bit of experience and confidence you can move towards a more sophisticated approach.

Ideally, you should make a claim, back it up with proof points and examples, and then explain why the reporter – and their audience – should care. A reporter is much more likely to look favourably on an interviewee that talks about current issues, rather than presenting a sales pitch.

This level of focus also means you can avoid commenting on topics outside your own area of expertise. And while the press loves a strong opinion, you should make sure your messages align with your company’s.

Build a bridge

Despite your preparation, it’s still likely that at some stage you will find yourself in an awkward situation during an interview.

It could be simply that the conversation isn’t flowing, or the reporter is having trouble understanding the technical details your providing. Or it could be they have caught you out with a tricky question or claim that you hadn’t expected or prepared for.

A technique that can help you stay on track and limit the chances of any mistakes is bridging.

During your preparation you will have come up with some key messages that you want to include in your answers. If the interview gets difficult you should plan to fall back on your prepared messages and redirect the conversation back to them. This will allow you to regain control of the conversation and ‘bridge’ to a more comfortable position.

These are typically statements that start with:

  • What’s actually most important here is…
  • Let’s focus on the issue at hand…
  • What you really need to know is…

Think of it like feeding sharks from an island. The island is your key messages. It’s safe, comfortable and you’re familiar with it. But occasionally you have to swim out to feed the sharks – in this case, answer a reporter’s question. Once you’ve fed the sharks, you want to use the bridging technique to get back to the safety of your island as soon as you can.

This method can also be used to combat some techniques that ‘sharky’ reporters may turn to, such as asking you to comment on false facts or hypotheticals, or machine gun-style, multi-part questions that are meant to unsettle you.

But don’t think that all journalists are out to get you or embarrass you, the vast majority are not. They’re interviewing you as they need your help in getting materials for a story that they need to write by a certain date. Remember that you are the expert and treat each question as an opportunity to display your understanding of the issues that affect the reporter’s audience. The easier you can make it for the journalist the more likely they’ll want to speak to you again in the future.

It may feel intimidating at first, and some media training may be needed to build the initial confidence required to ace an interview. But if you ask any company leader about their experience with interviews, they will tell you that it becomes an enjoyable part of the job.

So don’t just be content with reading the news, prepare for the day when you are the news!

Sam Rudland, Essential