Simply put, an interview is an exercise in communication. A successful interview is one in which the person being interviewed says what he or she wants to say, the journalist conducting the interview gets to ask the questions he or she wants to ask, and the audience or reader finds the result interesting.
How often have you read an interview in the press or watched a TV news segment featuring one of your peers and said to yourself, “How does he (or she!) do it? The message has come across clearly. The journalist didn’t pounce on the negative angles. Nothing seemed to be out of context. What is the secret?”
That “secret” is simpler than you might imagine. One of our EBM clients, the now-retired chairman and CEO of an international financial services company, who has faced more than his share of journalists and has an excellent interview track record, says his secret is “clarity, simplicity, and sincerity.”
This doesn’t mean dumbing down – the journalist facing you in an interview is a professional, too, remember, and has prepared for this interview with you.
“Clarity and simplicity” are needed because when you’re speaking to someone – when your communication is oral rather than written (including speaking to a journalist during an interview) – clarity of message often depends upon simplicity. And “sincerity” because that’s what will help convince the journalist that you mean what you say. And, returning to the first points: if you try to say too much (that is if you are not “simple”) you will lose your “sincerity.”
Let’s take those three elements one by one.
How do you achieve “clarity?” That’s also a function of “simplicity.” Our retired CEO advises, “Use short phrases, think very precisely about the points you want to get across and make one point per phrase – that is, one point per journalist question. No more.” A question from a journalist is not your cue to say everything you think you need to say and make all your points at once.
This is also a good example of why it’s advisable to employ the “Anglo-Saxon method” of communication (lead with the bottom line, be succinct, and then explain, as covered in L’Art des présentations percutantes) rather than Cartesian logic (explain how everything works before getting to the point).
And how does “sincerity” come into play in front of a journalist who is posing tough questions about an issue you might not want to address and where you may be disinclined to tell the whole truth?
“First of all,” says our executive, “don’t make the mistake of taking the person in front of you asking the questions to be naïve or an imbecile.” That is disrespectful and ensures your credibility will be lost.
Don’t Ignore the Bad Stuff
It is your job as a director and as a business leader to defend the interests of the company, your collaborators and your clients. Don’t ignore the questionable or negative side of your story (that is, the “bad news”); instead, put your focus on the positive elements. Indeed, focusing on those positive aspects may be the very thing that is sustaining you and your team through a rough time. Present your case in the best light, sincerely and honestly.
And remember: it’s the journalist’s job to ask you questions – tough questions. Being aggressive in the face of those tough questions will backfire. Don’t lose your temper. Remain cool.
Call the Spin Doctor?
It may be tempting to employ a “spin doctor” to achieve these three requirements and to help polish your message…but beware. “When the work of a ‘spin doctor’ is evident in your answers,” our retired CEO says, “it’s a stalemate. Manipulation doesn’t work. It’s better to think of the message you want to get across and make it clearly.” Beware of getting stuck in Blah-Blah Land, and remember: it doesn’t hurt to have “shadows” in the picture you are presenting. The sun doesn’t shine constantly. It also casts shadows. Even more important, it always rises again.
These are important elements in successful interviews. But there is no substitute for knowing what you’re talking about, and that is achieved through experience and doing your homework. “When you really understand your business, when you understand your numbers, and when you understand the people around you, you can be relatively relaxed,” says our retired CEO. “And that means you can be more direct and provide answers which are clear and simple.”
And that is a virtuous circle!
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.