How to give good interview

Jeremy Paxman

PLEASE NOTE: From the number of comments about job or university interviews, it’s clear that people find this article looking for advice about that.  However, this article is not about that type of interview. It’s about doing press interviews. For more tips on job interviews read How to be a really bad interviewee and Want a job? Learn to spell and Getting a job in the games industry on my personal site. Also, I’m sorry but I can’t give personal advice about your upcoming interview. I have deleted all the comments asking for this type of advice and I will not publish further questions of this type.

Giving an interview is easy. It’s not like public speaking and it’s not like being cross-examined by Jeremy Paxman except if you are Michael Howard. A good interview is like a focused, directed conversation between two professionals.

I do twenty or so interviews a week. There are few pieces of writing that can’t be improved with more and better interviews.

  • Be yourself. Be concise and answer the question put to you. The more natural you sound, the better the interview. See my article: Being human is overrated (except when you’re writing).
  • Let the interviewer lead. If they seem to want you to talk more, talk more. If they sound impatient and keep interrupting, be more succinct.
  • Don’t talk too quickly. I have a theory that one reason why George Bush plays so well in the American media is that he talks really slowly. There is some evidence to suggest that has psychological overtones of confidence and power. It also makes people listen harder. It gives you more time to think and the poor journalist more time to write notes. (Read why interviews go wrong for a better understanding of what can happen.)
  • Don’t be put off by tape recorders. Some interviewers use a tape recorder and work from the recording and some will write notes during the interview (I do both).
  • Agree an agenda and schedule. Agree at the beginning how long the interview will last and some kind of rough agenda so that you get through everything in the time available.
  • Don’t ask for questions in advance. It is reasonable to ask a journalist what sort of questions they may ask and what topics they want to cover when arranging the interview, but don’t ask for a list of questions in advance – they won’t have it and even if they do, they won’t send it to you. It’s not that they want to catch you out, it’s just that they want your answers to be fresh and spontaneous, not rehearsed.
  • Do your own research. Read the interviewer’s other work, Google them, read the magazine or newspaper the article will be published in. This is much more useful than preparing cod answers to cod questions.
  • Do think about what you would like to say. Think about the kinds of things you want to communicate and the sorts of questions you are going to get asked but don’t write prepared statements.
  • Remember what the interviewer wants. Usually they want three things: 1) a better understanding of the topic, 2) something new and interesting to say to their readers and 3) quotable quotes that will punctuate the story. If you don’t give them good, human quotes, they’ll make up Frankenquotes.
  • The interviewer is human. My best interviews come from a natural rapport with the interviewee. If they are defensive, it makes me defensive but if they are friendly, I am friendly. It’s just human nature. Part of my job is to put my victims at ease but I need something to work with.
  • Pick your time well. I am terrible before 10am and after about 5pm. Try to pick a time when you will be relaxed and ‘on form’. Consider using something like Timebridge to schedule a mutually convenient time.
  • Be accessible. Give the journalist a phone number and an email address. Don’t hide behind a PR company because they will add two days and extra cost to every interaction. Try to be flexible about arranging the interview. Don’t be like the publicity-hungry airline executive I interviewed once who gave 24 hours notice of an interview, cancelled on four hours notice, rescheduled to the next day promising an hour but only gave fifteen minutes. And then complained that he only got a one page article.
  • Turn up on time. If I arrange to interview ten people, there will always be at least one who doesn’t show up or who doesn’t answer their phone. Some try to reschedule, some disappear. I schedule lots of interviews during an interview day and if someone misses their slot, I normally can’t fit them in later.
  • Don’t ask to review the article. For corporate work, this is usually possible though time-consuming. For journalistic interviews, it is a practical and often a contractual impossibility. It complicates the production cycle, most writers’ assignments specifically forbid it and editors fear that people will get all nannyish and try to rewrite a piece to turn a good interview back into a bland, committee-written press release.
  • Prepare yourself. Have a friendly journalist or PR ex-journalist do a mock interview with you. Get some media training (although please keep some personality and candour afterwards – don’t turn into media puppet). Think about what life is like for a freelance journalist.

There are two things to be wary of in an interview. These are tricks that unscrupulous journalists sometimes use but mainly in the tabloid press.

  • No such thing as off the record. Unless you know and absolutely trust the interviewer, don’t say anything ever that you wouldn’t want to appear in print. A good journalist will respect an off the record comment or an inadvertent slip; but the only guarantee comes if you don’t make them. However, don’t do what one of my interviewees did once: ask for the entire interview to be off the record and then complain to my editor when he wasn’t quoted.
  • Don’t let the journalist put words in your mouth. Some people think this is a legitimate tactic. For example, “your industry is in a terrible mess and only a bloodbath will sort things out, wouldn’t you agree.” If you don’t disagree they might put those words into quotes as if you said them. So, listen carefully to what they say and if they ask a question in that format, do a Tony Blair and say “I’m not sure I agree with that entirely. What I think is …”

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13 Responses to How to give good interview

  1. Suzann April 18, 2008 at 9:29 am #

    Great article. I always wondered about the “off the record” thing, and I’m glad to see you confirmed my suspicions. I used to interview artists for a monthly periodical, but it was a low-stress situation, and our goal was to get the public more actively interested in supporting the arts. But – if I ever get my own novel published, I will review your excellent article!

  2. Larry B. November 22, 2008 at 10:07 pm #

    I have a television talk-show interview next week and I found your tips very useful.

    I’m a professor, so it is difficult for me to speak in small bits, but I will practice over the weekend. I’ll use a stop watch to try to make sure my answers are between 30 to 60 seconds.

    Thanks a lot

  3. janicelbrown February 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Great article and list of tips, Matthew. A clip-and-save for anyone who does press interviews. Two additional tips:

    (1) Watch out for the “walk to the elevator.” The interview is not officially over until you or the journalist leaves the building , so stay “on” until the very end. Informal parting comments or responses to seemingly innocuous questions can end up in the story.

    (2) If the journalist asks a very complex, multi-level question, break it up into parts when answering. Restate/rephrase each part before answering it.

    • Matthew Stibbe February 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

      Agreed. Very good points.

      It’s very easy to relax at the end of an interview and, in fact, I often get my best quotes (for case studies rather than editorial articles these days!) at the very end when people think it’s over. In my experience, people relax enough to stop trying to sound ‘big and clever’ and they actually sound much more human.

      This is, ideally, what you should be aiming for as an interviewee from the beginning: human, concise, knowledgeable, interesting. In a word, quotable.

      Multi-part questions are just lazy thinking from the journalist. You can always say “what was the first part again?” if you get lost mid-question! :)

  4. Grace Hr April 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Thanx a lot Mr Matthew, u’r article is very usefull for me. I am a university student from Indonesia. I have assiggment from my Speaking teacher, about “HOW TO BE A GOOD INTERVIWEE”.
    And I must train my friend in front of the class when I represent my job. Through the article that you created, hopefully my presentation will be success.

  5. cherryl252washere June 8, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    great points!

    i’m a freelance journalist and this really helped me see the other side. i’m considering emailing a link to this page to people i may interview who don’t get interviewed much. might help us both in ensuring a smoother interview.

    thanks for this!

  6. palak May 17, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    In next two or three days i have to give an interview,as i am fresher going to start a simple bank job.some points from this page has helped me,,some points are very good and are very necessary for both fresher and experienced….i found it good and hope for best interview from my side…

    thank you!

  7. Elizabeth Mueller December 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    Okay, I find your sit extremely fascinating! I had a friend interview me live via BlogTalkRadio. I was nervous because it was my first time. I’m proud that I picked up on cues she gave me without talking about it previously. Thanks for posting this, I’ve just shared it with my author friends.

    *curtsying*

  8. JLLopez1006 January 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Sorry, I stumbled upon this article while looking for tips on job-related interviews, which I know is not your intended focus. But nonetheless, this article is interesting to me, as I am a freelance writer who conducts interviews with local businesses, so this definitely speaks to me. I think many of the tips can apply in either situation. I like when people are prepared, but not trying to tell me exactly what or what not to cover. My biggest pet peeve is people who say something, and then say, “Oh, but don’t include that in the article!” Interviewing individuals for the purpose of the article is quite the interesting beast, I have to say, and my best people are normally those that are totally new to it. Those who have been interviewed previously are too calculated and attempt to control the interview too much or can be pushy or downright rude. But I do enjoy getting to find out more about people, their background, and in particular, the passion behind their business. Since I write advertorials, the one thing that I wish interviewees would know is that I am there to make them look the best possible without being fictitious, so if they trust in that, it makes the interview process much easier, and in turn, the article richer.

  9. Wendy September 12, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    This article is very helpful. I do tv interviews and I am always looking for ways to improve. Thanks for the insight.

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