Being Interviewed

A reader asked, "How do I best prepare for an interview?" Here's what I recommend.

  • Compile a list of questions you could be asked. Depending on who you are, you could be asked about your role, motives, vision, business, products, competitors, family, relationships, and relevant news stories, including controversies. Read both articles and interviews in the publication, and consider the material that publication prefers to cover. For example, Playboy and the Financial Times aren't interested in the same material.
  • Prepare your answers in writing. If you received questions before the interview, answer those questions as well, and think about follow-up questions that could be asked. The basic structure of an adequate answer is a single declarative statement followed by three supporting examples and a final declarative statement reinforcing the first. For broadcast interviews, say no more than this. For print, feel free to elaborate, but get to the point quickly and stay on point. Also ensure that your declarative statements are short, memorable, and express your message clearly. These statements are likely to be laid out as pull quotes.
  • Rehearse your answers ahead of the interview. But do not memorize them unless you can act! You want to come across as authentic. You don't want to sound like you're reading from a script. An interview is a conversation — a directed conversation but a conversation nonetheless. Let the conversation flow naturally and evolve organically. Robotic and awkward interviews are tough to watch and difficult to conduct. Interviewers should never feel like they're "pulling teeth;" they're partly to blame if they do but cagey answers don't help.
  • Be deliberate about word choice. For broadcast, dead air will cause the interviewer to move on; air time is extremely costly in terms of both money and viewers. For print, if you have to pause to think of the right word, do so; you have a captive audience. Avoid experimenting with phrasing. You want your interview to be easy to transcribe, and you want the transcription to be straightforward to edit. Transcription and editing can be expensive, and that cost is attached to the price of interviewing you. If you have any interest in being regularly interviewed by the same publication for either features or quotes, don't be an expensive interview.
  • Be mindful of the clock. For broadcast, say what you need to say, get your message out, and shut up. Brevity is next to godliness; the longer you speak, the less you seem to know. If you ramble or dawdle, there's a solid chance you won't get invited back and you're likely to be cut off, which is embarrassing. For print, you and your interviewer should have scheduled a block of time for the interview. You have other work to do and so too does the interviewer. Be punctual. If you want to continue past the allotted time or need to reschedule, ask the interviewer if that would be acceptable, or suggest another block of time during which to resume the interview.
  • Understand the editorial process. Some of your answers will be cut or shortened. Good content is often thrown out with bad content for time and/or space. The interviewer usually does not want to make you look bad; the interviewer wants to take pride in the interview and showcase that work. Help your interviewer by being interesting, not merely informative. You're doing an interview. You're not writing a textbook.
  • Don't try to limit the scope before the interview. The interviewer may very well blindside you by asking restricted questions anyway, questions you didn't prepare for because you thought you were safe. If you are asked a question you don't want to answer, you can offer an answer from which follow-up questions would lead either nowhere or nowhere interesting, or gently guide the conversation to another topic. Better yet, use the opportunity to address the question in exactly the way you want. Whatever you choose to do, don't walk out.
  • Never ever tell the interviewer you won't answer further questions because, for example, you want to save those answers for a book or movie about your "life story," especially near the end of a long interview after the interviewer has already spent a lot of time and money on you. Your interview will be excised — or worse. If you have an interest in delivering your story in another format, continuing the interview will help you think through content for your book or movie on which you can elaborate in far greater detail later.
  • Sleep well before the interview. You want to be alert and responsive. If you're tired, do everyone including yourself a favor and reschedule. If you try to power through, you'll be sluggish, your words won't come out right, and you'll be grouchy and snap at the interviewer. If you try to substitute a caffeine high for wakefulness, you'll be jittery and nervous. Trust me: that's a bad idea. Don't sabotage yourself.

Finally, if you follow these guidelines, your interviewer can be a resource for you going forward. They can make valuable recommendations. They can become your coauthor, your ghostwriter, or your regular interviewer. They may also be willing to coach you on what you can do better in future interviews. Avoid burning that bridge.