How hard can it be, really, sitting down and doing an interview with a reporter? We ask you questions, you answer them. Simple, right?
Apparently not. That's my conclusion after spending well over a dozen years on the "asking" side of the table. It's confirmed by the questions I get, over and over: How do I get press for my company? How do I not screw up an interview?
How you get press depends quite a bit on what you're trying to get press for. Maybe I'll tackle that in another column. But how you conduct yourself during an interview doesn't vary much. To wit:
Write the headline on your story. If you're giving a reporter an interview, it's because you have a story to tell, right? Well, can you summarize that story in 12 words or less? That's how many words are used in a headline—and a generous one at that. I’m not saying a reporter will use your headline. But you want to take the time to come up with a succinct, compelling summary your story. If you don't know what the headline on your story is, then who does?
Know how much time you have. Is this an hour interview or do you have 10 minutes? If it's 10 minutes, and you start with, "Well, let me give you the 50,000-foot view,” you're on the express train to irrelevancy.
Don't read from a script. This is the surest way to guarantee you won’t be quoted. Even if you manage the most wonderful turn of phrase, it'll sound flat. So sure, practice your answers. But remember: A good interview is a conversation. So have one.
Speak English. You don't need to impress anyone with words that aren't a normal part of your vocabulary. There's nothing wrong with simple, short words.
Go off-message. There are certain things you probably want to get out of this interview. There are certain points that are probably important to you, so you may repeat them a few times. Okay. But if a reporter asks you something unrelated, then generally, you should humor him or her. Don't reflexively turn the conversation back to what's important to you. We can argue about whether or not that's rude, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that it's boring. And worse, not quotable.
Don't blow the softball question. Occasionally, a reporter will ask you a question whose answer seems blindingly obvious. This does not mean it is a stupid question. It is a gift. It is called the softball. Answer it.
When I interview entrepreneurs, I often ask why they decided to go out on their own. Sometimes I get a really interesting answer. But a colleague of mine recently asked this question to a healthcare entrepreneur. She looked at the reporter as if he were an idiot. She thought the answer was so obvious that he had no business asking the question. She missed the opportunity to have her story told.
Be easy to reach. Don't make the reporter go through the PR person just to check the spelling of your name. Give out your email address and your cell phone number. After all, do you want to be called again or not?
Don't try to be perfect. Perfect is boring. If something went wrong – and we know that at some point, it did – then the story of how you fixed it is a whole lot more helpful to readers than a story about how for you, everything somehow magically goes right, all the time.
Answer the question. There is nothing more irritating than an interview subject who refuses to answer a question—and then pretends that they've answered it.
Unless you are on television (a whole different ball game), it is totally okay to pause to think. If you need to buy yourself time, just say, "Let me think about that."
If you really can't answer, just say so, and say why. I have had many entrepreneurs say to me, "I can't give you our revenue numbers, because our venture investors won't let us release them." So we talk about other ways I might show a reader how big the company is or how much progress it’s made. In other cases, the revenue numbers might be a deal-breaker. Either way, we have a conversation about it.
Do not ask to approve your quotes. If you're in a field -- say drug development -- where the exact wording of how you describe your product or company can get you into hot water with regulators, then discuss the situation with the reporter beforehand, or ask your PR person to. No reputable reporter wants to get you in trouble.
Be honest. This may sound obvious. But it is still amazing how often people fib, under the assumption no one will find out. Someone will.
We all make mistakes. But if you're not sure if something happened in June or August, or if was 10 or a dozen people you hired, just say, "You know what? I'm not exactly sure. Let me check on that and get back to you."
Don't ask to go off the record retroactively. The reporter expects to be able to use this interview -- any and all of it -- in a story. That's why they're talking to you in the first place. The more frustrating thing that can happen is for him or her to spend 20 minutes talking to you and for you to say, "Oh, but that's off the record, right?" This is the sort of thing that makes reporters' heads explode, and that's messy.
If you want to make sure the reporter understands something sensitive, but don't want it attributed to you, say, "Can we go off the record for a minute?" before you make your revelation. Then make sure you and the reporter agree as to when you're back on the record.
Getting press can make a huge difference to a startup. So take a few minutes before picking up the phone to make sure your next interaction with a reporter is a positive one.