Preparing for a media interview

An interview gives you an excellent opportunity to communicate your message. Being well prepared will help you feel comfortable during the interview, and will also enable you to focus your mind on what you want to say and to stick to it. The list below will help you to prepare for an interview.
What’s the story?
You need to find out whether the interview will be for a news story or a feature. News interviews are generally shorter and require just one or two quotes, whereas interviews for features are usually more probing and rely a lot more on you talking about your personal experiences.
What’s the angle?
Find out the journalist’s angle on the story. The journalist may just say something very general, such as “It’s about the opening of a new mental health service”. Try and find out more if you can, and what they think is interesting about the story. Will the story focus on how services will improve life for local service users, or on opposition to its opening from local residents?
Why me?
Find out what the journalist wants you to talk about. They could be looking for:

  • Factual information of the “who, where, how, why” variety. If so, your own contribution should be acknowledged but it will be quoted in the third person for the broadcast/article.
  • Your opinion, in which case you will probably be allowed to speak directly/be quoted directly. Before you give your opinion, establish if you are expected to speak as an individual or as a spokesperson for your group. As a spokesperson, you need to get the agreement of your group before speaking on their behalf. You may wish to issue a statement for the group rather than give an interview.
  • If you are being asked to comment on a third person’s views, think about the likely consequences of your comments, especially if they have an impact on your group (e.g. they provide funding).
  • Human interest. This is the most common reason for journalists to contact people who have direct experience of mental health issues. Remember to use your experiences to reinforce your key messages. Clearly define your boundaries and stick to these.

Who else?
You need to establish the context of the article/broadcast item your comments are going to be placed in. Ask if they are interviewing anyone else. If someone has already commented, ask what they have said and write their comments down. Anticipate possible opposing viewpoints and answer them in your comments.
Before the interview, make sure you know the answers to these basic questions:

  • Who? Name of interviewer, name of the media organisation they work for, his/her contact details and title within the media organisation. It is worth knowing what field the journalist covers. If they are freelance, identify who they are approaching with the story. Be aware that for broadcast items, a camera crew and others will be present at the interview.
  • When? When is the interview? When is the deadline? When will the piece be printed/broadcast? For news articles/reports, the interview may be very soon after the initial contact between you and the journalist, unless you have informed the journalist in advance of an event. This is especially the case for a telephone interview. For features, there is usually more time.
  • Where? Where will it take place – in a studio, on location, or on the telephone? Try and choose somewhere where you feel comfortable. For phone interviews, you may want to make notes of what you say so you can ring back and amend something.
  • What’s the format? Will it be live or pre-recorded? If the interview is pre-recorded, ask how long the interview will last and what length the clip to be used will be (this will help you to tailor the length and detail of your response). You can expect a 45 minute interview to be reduced to a 30 second broadcast.

Your visual image – top tips for television interviews

  • Darker colours suggest authority
  • Avoid black or all white
  • Lighter colours suggest light subject
  • Bangles can jangle!
  • Thin stripes and small dots can cause ‘strobing’
  • Wear plain ties
  • Keep hair tidy and off face
  • Have a shave (if applicable!)
  • “Costumes” such as straight-jackets (!) don’t help unless part of a very carefully considered campaign photoshoot

Before the interview

  • Check that what you want to say is factually correct.
    Practise saying aloud your key messages confidently to someone or in front of a mirror. Remember, for TV, body language is important.
  • Practise answering any difficult questions that may come up
  • Arrive well in time for the interview, as this will help to settle your nerves
  • If you are suffering from nerves, there are many techniques to help you unwind. One suggestion is to focus outwards rather than inwards. Rather than focusing on internal anxieties about how you will perform, try focusing on the environment around you and on the interviewer. Some people also find deep breathing from the diaphragm to be calming.
  • If it helps, ask if you can bring along a friend for moral support
  • You could ask for a list of questions before the interview and practice answers beforehand. Some journalists may brief you before the interview, some may give you questions in advance but others will do neither.
  • For television, and to a lesser extent, radio, it will not only be what you say that determines how viewers respond to you, but how you look and speak. Some media research has indicated that the image you present and how you deliver your message is noticed and judged considerably more that what you actually say!

During the Interview

  • Re-state your boundaries.
  • Be polite and friendly, but cautious. Never show annoyance, even if asked annoying or loaded questions.
  • Start with a key message and end with a key message if possible. Use every opportunity to reiterate your own key messages in different ways. This will maximise the chances of some of them being used.
  • Speak clearly at a measured pace. This may be difficult if you are nervous. Try speaking from your diaphragm rather than your throat. Slow down when delivering your key messages, to ensure that they come across clearly.
  • Listen carefully to the question you are being asked. Remember, the most important question may be left to last, even after the interview appears to be over. Or the journalist may keep returning to the same question again and again.
  • Be prepared to explain any terms you use.
  • Use short quotes or soundbites if you can – these are likely to be used even if all else is edited.
    Don’t attempt to answer questions you don’t know the answer to.
  • Although it may sound obvious, remember that the journalist is not your friend or your therapist, even though they may sound friendly – this is deliberately done in order to elicit further information from you. Anything you say may reach the wider audience.
  • Try to avoid absolutes such as “never”. This will make it more difficult to challenge your statements.
  • Try and end on a positive note.

After the interview

  • Some people find it very useful to be able to talk about how the interview went to a friend they can trust. This is especially so if you were asked a lot of personal questions which brought up memories or difficult feelings.
  • Think of your interview as having been a learning experience. If you encountered any problems, it would be worth thinking about how they could be avoided next time.
  • Don’t be disheartened if the interview is heavily edited. This is to be expected. Don’t be too disheartened if your interview is not used at all. There are 101 reasons why this might be so. Think of it as valuable experience which can help you in the future.

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