Media Interviews: More Tips

Only comment within the range of your knowledge and expertise. If a question takes you beyond your knowledge or specialist area, say so:

“I can only talk about what I know. A salinity expert is the person you want to speak to about that.”

“I have no knowledge about that specific case. It would be unfair to comment without examining the facts, wouldn’t it?”

If you don’t know, say you don’t know and promise to find out:

“I don’t know the answer to that question. But I can find out and get back to you.”

If you don’t have a figure or detail at hand, say you will have to get back to the reporter on that.

Assume that your own facts and figures are the only reliable ones. Facts and figures mention by a reporter or interviewer may be incorrect or incorrectly interpreted. Only comment on statistics and detail that you know are true:

“Look I’m not at all sure those figures are correct. I would need to check their accuracy before I could talk about them.”

“I’d need to know the sample size, and look at the framing of the questions before I gave any credence to that survey. Questions can be so easily doctored, can’t they?”

Surveys commissioned by groups partial to a particular viewpoint should be treated with extreme caution. Opinion pollsters know that subtle changes of the wording of a question can produce dramatically different results.

Ensure that the words that come out of your mouth are your own. A common ploy of interviewers and reporters is to include their own opinions in a question. Go on high alert when you hear phrases like the following precede a question:

“Don’t you think….”


“So what you’re saying is….”

“Are you saying….”

“Isn’t that….”

“Isn’t it really….”


“Can’t it….”

Do not mirror the interviewers words back to them:

Instead of: “No I don’t think it’s a case of bureaucratic ineptitude”

Rephrase positively “We have to establish the facts first before we spend your tax dollar”

Make sure your main point/s is up front of your answer. Couch your answers in the positive and say what you are doing and not what you are not doing

Instead of: “No, we are not discriminating against Aborigines.”

Rephrase: “We encourage indigenous people to apply for the jobs.”

Speak in the first-person, active voice as it is important that you convey the impression of action, involvement, and decisiveness.

Statements like “The program will be initiated on a trial basis in Pittsburgh.” reek of dispassion and distance. “We will trial this new program in Pittsburgh first” indicates involvement and action.

Always reflect empathy towards the human side of things.

“The economic downturn in the housing industry has forced the downsizing on us.” speaks volumes about you not caring.

“It was a tough decision. We reluctantly had to let people go because there was no work.” indicates you are taking responsibility for having made a difficult decision. Remember governments, organisations, and companies don’t make decisions or formulate policy, people do!

Follow Einstein’s Rule: Everything should be made as simple as possible.

Short simple answers are better than long, complicated ones

Use concrete language

A few short, simple sentences using everyday language give the interviewer and your stake-holders less chance of misinterpreting you

Simplicity is important in electronic news gathering. You should be able to make your major points to fit a 20 – 30 second grab.

Treat your audience as intelligent but never overestimate your audience's knowledge

Explain your terms when covering a difficult subject: better still, think of concrete terms or similes that explain your ideas

Avoid jargon, acronyms, abstract language, and polysyllabic pomp

Use metaphor to illustrate your point

Don’t talk down to people

Instead of “What you have to understand…” say something like “If you consider”

Relate hypothetical questions to concrete examples.It may be unwise to comment on hypothetical cases. Instead, particularise them:

“That’s a hypothetical question, so it’s impossible to know what would happen. But let me tell you what did happen in a similar case”

Tell the truth. Lying can destroy the carefully built credibility of your organisation.

You do not have to volunteer information which may be misinterpreted

You do not have to reveal information as you would in a confessional

You can say “I cannot tell you that. You wouldn’t want me to betray the trust of the people involved, would you?”

You can say “That will be announced in a fortnight. Everyone will get to know at the same time and that way no-one will have an advantage”

You can say “That is commercially sensitive information and as you can appreciate I can’t tell you about it”

Keep control of the agenda. Beware of the interviewer or reporter who wants to broaden the agenda.

Sometimes interviewers and reporters request an interview under one guise in order to put you on the spot about something else. This is a dishonest practice, and it’s perfectly acceptable to point out the dishonesty:

“You invited me here to talk about our Skilled migrant Program and now you’re asking me questions on a very sensitive subject that I have not had a chance to be briefed on. I can not be a party to such dishonesty.”

“You told me you wanted to talk about employment opportunities in our industry. Now you bring up a case of alleged sexual harassment that I have no information on. Do you think that’s fair or honest?”

On occasions interviewers and reporters want to get too personal. On those occasions, take the point and broaden it:

“How do I balance my duties as a corporate executive, husband and father? That question clearly illustrates the problems that many American working couples have to contend with….”

When interviewers attempt to expand their range of questions beyond the immediate subject area, rein the discussion in:

“Wait a moment. Let’s flesh out the problem of bringing unethical lawyers to account before we move into the so-called high costs of justice”

Keep your focus on your side of the argument. Some politicians and others spend most of their time trying to demolish the arguments of their opposite numbers. This focuses attention on your opponents arguments instead of yours.

By ‘sticking to the knitting’ you ensure that your points of view are the ones that get coverage
State your case positively and tell people about the features, advantages, and benefits of your position

(c) Desmond Guilfoyle 2006

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