Interview tips for ships that pass in the night

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

These words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow popped into my mind this week, as I read an internal email from The Economist‘s “brand communications manager” that landed in my inbox. It began:

As more and more of you are doing broadcast interviews now, I thought it might be useful to re-circulate these hints and tips…

I have indeed, over the past 14 years, been doing more and more broadcast interviews, and made more than my share of mistakes. So I began perusing these tips with an open mind. Many were about the mechanics (wear plain shirts on TV, no patterns, no black; don’t fiddle with your hands; etc). But the important ones were about content. And, as I kept reading, I grew somewhat pensive.

That’s because, as I see it, the tips were simultaneously

  1. good — ie, anybody doing media interviews is well advised to heed them — and
  2. awful — ie, heeding them is what makes our political, public and personal conversations increasingly pointless and frustrating.
I shall explain, in two parts:

1) The tips

I was slightly suspicious of the Powerpoint-style pseudo-acronyms (this email came from the “business side”, after all), but could not argue with the advice:

Prepare beforehand – decide what it is you really want to get across, having stats to hand will usually be useful. Know your:

  • Audience
  • Messages (focus on three key things to say)
  • Evidence (third party endorsement is good e.g. quotes or research)
  • Negatives (what’s the “worst” question they could ask?)

(AMEN, get it? Oh dear.)


Get in early with your messages/evidence – don’t wait for the perfect question, it may never come

Translation: Ignore the question, just say whatever the heck you want to say, which is probably whatever you said in your last article in The Economist.

More tips:

Avoid being question-led so the interviewer gets a neat segment that fits their preconceptions but you don’t get to say anything really interesting or useful.

Add value. Don’t feel forced to answer a question at length that you feel is unclear or irrelevant. You are the expert, talk about what you think is most significant.

If you are asked a difficult question:

1. Acknowledge it (“I understand that view…” / “we need to look at this issue in the light of..”)

2. Bridge back and communicate what you want to say.

3. Don’t repeat any negative language – if the audience is only half-listening, that’s all they will hear.

4. Don’t fake it if you don’t know, bring the conversation back to where you feel comfortable.

Translation: In case you didn’t get the first translation, ignore the question (but be suave about it) and say whatever the heck you want to say….

2) The consequences

I did say, right up front, that I had contradictory reactions to this advice. I know too well how utterly demoralizing it is to be on the radio or on TV, and to go off on that tangent that might become so very sophisticated in just a few minutes but dies suddenly and ignominiously when the interview is … over.

‘Wait, you mean, you don’t want to hear all my complex thoughts on this issue?’

No, they don’t.

If you don’t seize the conversation, they, or it, will seize you.

On the other hand, what kind of “conversations” are we talking about?

The worst kind: the eristic kind, as Socrates would say, the kind that obstructs communication and discovery of truth.

And so we all — journalists, politicians, consultants, pundits — become “media-trained”, talking right past one another, just like ships that pass in the night.