How to do a great interview... with the use of shoelaces

14 December 2020  |  Insights
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Many moons ago as a newspaper journalist, I blithely agreed to be interviewed on local radio about reporting court cases.

It was a subject I knew a lot about and the questions weren’t going to be hard, so I wasn’t at all worried – but then I started speaking and suddenly turned into a nervous mess, jabbering on at a rate of knots about “the machinations of the court system.” If I was listening to me, I’d have turned off.

As I discovered to my embarrassment, if you want to deliver a great (or even passable) broadcast interview, it pays to prepare.

Several years of working in PR and prepping people for interviews later, I’ve become familiar with the techniques you can use to get yourself ready – in fact, I often find myself playing a sort of “media training bingo” while listening to interviews on the radio.

Recently I came across a couple of examples of very different – but effective – interview techniques back-to-back on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. The first was a spokeswoman for Marks and Spencer who had clearly gone into an interview about extended Christmas opening hours with the aim of getting people to shop on the M&S website.

Know what you want to say

It was media training 101: know what you want to communicate and get it into the conversation (no matter what question you’re asked). She knew she was going to get two minutes of precious prime airtime and she wasn’t going to waste it.

She’d probably written down her main message, ‘we’re open 24 hours a day on M&S.com’, and she managed to shoehorn it into the interview twice in 40 seconds.

It wasn’t subtle – in fact, it was a little wooden – but she did the job she was there to do.

The next story was about a science breakthrough, which was so complex that I initially found preparing the children’s lunchboxes more interesting. Then the wonderful Professor Dame Janet Thornton came on to talk about why understanding protein shapes was so important.

“Proteins are the workhorses of nature,” she began, describing the way they work “rather like a shoelace folding into a ball” and then explaining the significance of the discovery.

“It’s the equivalent of solving a massive, three-dimensional jigsaw, with thousands of pieces, in the dark.”

It was a beautiful example of interview technique. By combining her enthusiasm for the subject with simple, colourful examples, Dame Thornton brought a difficult subject to life, making it much easier to understand and helping an uneducated listener (me) to grasp its importance.

Making it memorable

While both these women followed great principles of interviewing, one of the conversations was much more memorable than the other. I’m sure that if the Today Programme wants to interview an expert in bioinformatics again, Dame Thornton will be top of their list.

Which brings me to the most important interview tip of all: pick your spokesperson wisely. It’s tempting to always go for the most senior person, but if they’re not a natural communicator, it may be better to brief someone else from your organisation who has the innate ability to win over an audience with charm, wit and grace.

They might even get praise like Dame Thornton received from presenter Martha Kearney: “Thank you for explaining that so clearly, with the use of shoelaces.”

Charis Gibson, Account Development Director, Jersey Road PR.

Jersey Road runs media training courses, including ones on media interview technique and crisis communications. Find out about our upcoming courses here or contact us to discuss bespoke training for your organisation or church.

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