Interviews with reporters can be intimidating. Prepare remarks ahead of time and anticipate likely questions to boost your confidence before an interview.
Scheduling an interview
Some reporters will call in advance to schedule an interview. Others want answers right away. Because of the news media’s time-sensitive nature, reporters are often on very short deadlines and may not have the luxury of scheduling interviews very far in advance.
Despite this, if a reporter requests information in a hurry, it’s completely acceptable to ask for some time to collect your thoughts. Ask for their deadline and arrange for a mutually-agreeable time to talk, even if it’s in five minutes. Taking the time to think through your response will help the interview go smoothly for both parties.
Be sure to find out as much as possible about the story in advance. Reporters aren’t the only ones who can ask questions. When scheduling an interview, ask the reporter:
- What is the story about?
- What is your deadline?
- What level of detail are you seeking?
- In which outlet(s) will the story appear?
- Who is the intended audience?
Scientists who have news to share should contact public information or press officers at their institutions. Most universities, agencies, and science organizations have public information officers (PIOs) who act as liaisons between scientists and the press. They can help determine opportunities for media outreach, such as press releases and press conferences, and also assist with interview preparation. PIO contact information is typically available on the institutional website.
Preparing for an interview
Scientists present new research results to journalists during a AAAS Annual Meeting press conference. | Boston Atlantic Photographic
- Define goals. Start by answering this question: “What is the key point I wish to get across in this interview?”
- Consider the audience. Consider the intended audience – the reporter’s readers, listeners, or viewers. What are their values, interests, and concerns? Prepare your core messages with the intended audience in mind.
- Compose core messages. Spend some time developing a three-point message focused on different aspects of that key point. Gather facts, figures, and anecdotes to support your points.
- Practice delivering core messages. Aim to deliver messages without relying on notes, but avoid stiffly reciting memorized messages. Be natural.
- Anticipate questions: Think about what questions the reporter might ask, especially tough ones, and have responses ready. Practice bridging to your core messages when answering their questions, and answering difficult questions as briefly as possible.
- Prepare summaries. Reporters always need perspective (e.g., How many people are affected? When did the issue arise? Is this part of a national trend?). Provide the reporter with a written summary of information, main points or statistics, or other papers for background information, if possible. Consider putting the issue into perspective.
- Get feedback. Public information officers at most institutions or agencies can help refine core messages and provide feedback. Also, run your core messages by friends or colleagues with different expertise for some honest feedback.
During an interview
- Be clear. Talk in lay terms, using as little professional or technical language (a.k.a. jargon) as possible. State the most important information first — then provide the background. Mention the subject of your research by name several times during the interview, rather than saying "it" or "they."
- Give examples. Illustrate key points with stories, anecdotes, and examples.
- Use sound bites. For taped interviews, radio and television editors often cut interviewees’ remarks down to several seconds. Likewise, print and web reporters often use only a couple of one- or two-sentence quotes in stories. Prepare “sound bites,” or concise statements, that writers or TV and radio editors can easily insert into a story. Be sure to use any pre-prepared 3-point messages in sound bites to ensure core messages get across.
- Stay on message. Stick to core messages and do not get drawn off on tangents. Repeat core messages if necessary to get back on track. Never say anything that you don’t want to appear in print, be heard on the radio, or seen on television or the internet.
- Work with the reporter. Make eye contact if the interview is in-person. Don't overestimate a reporter's knowledge of the subject. If a reporter bases questions on incorrect information, set the record straight. Offer background information where necessary. Also, avoid saying things "off the record." Reporters may or may not honor this, and it may be frustrating to them.
- Identify opinion vs. fact: Identify your thoughts as either fact or opinion. Your opinions are your own, but fact is fact.
- Be honest. Don't try to conceal negative information; rather, let your interviewer know what you are doing to resolve a problem. Where uncertainty exists, note that it is an inherent component of the scientific process.
- Don't joke. Be friendly, but not complacent. Assume everything said, even in a social situation, may appear in print or on the air.
- Summarize. Make final comments clear and concise, reemphasizing core messages. If it seems the message did not get across, force it in at the end. ("I think we've missed the real, critical issue here, which is…")
- Be confident.
- Think. Take time to think before answering a question.
- Don’t fill silence. Keep answers short and don’t fill silence with nervous chatter. Reporters sometimes use silence as a tool, hoping interviewees will fill the gap with more information. As a result, interviewees may say things they hadn’t intended and are upset when those things appear in print. Stay quiet and wait for the reporter’s next question.
- Share complete thoughts. Speak in complete sentences, rather than giving “yes” or “no” answers. Because the reporter's question may be edited out, all responses should stand on their own. This is especially important for television interviews.
- Clarify. Ask for clarification if a question is confusing.
- Explain the reason for not answering some questions. It’s okay to not answer a question, but be sure to explain why, such as “I am not familiar with that study” or “We didn’t look at that.” Tell the reporter where to find the information, if possible. Offer to get back to the reporter with an answer or contact information for another expert. Avoid discussing hypothetical situations. Never say, "No comment," which can be interpreted as withholding information.
After an interview
- Don’t get discouraged. Don’t be alarmed if most of the interview doesn’t make it into a story – reporters often conduct many extensive interviews to gather the information they need to get to the heart of a story. They might only include one or two quotes from a half-hour interview.
- Report mistakes. All good reporters want to be accurate. If the reporter has made a mistake in the printed story, write and tell them so. Most reporters will be appreciative. However, if something is simply written in the reporter’s style (which may not be how you would have written it) but is otherwise accurate, try to let it go.