As journalists, we’re old hands at interviewing. But last month, I got a crash course in being interviewed. After a feature story of mine about coal power was published in the April issue of National Geographic, the magazine’s communications staff sent me on a “radio tour”—which meant I did two solid days of radio interviews, plus a few stragglers. I talked to NPR stations, commercial rock stations, progressive-talk stations, and even a couple of morning shows (the kind with a sidekick that laughs at all the host’s jokes, whether they’re funny or not). I’d been a radio guest before, but never had I done twenty-plus back-to-back interviews. Here’s what I learned.
1. Know what you’re in for. I worked with a great publicist who set up the interviews and sent me a schedule of times, dates, contact numbers, and host and show names. The schedule also specified whether the interviews were live or taped, and whether there would be listener calls. This may sound like simple stuff, but it’s often lifesaving. So whether you’re doing one interview or 20, make sure you have all the logistical information you need on hand and in one place. (Most importantly, know where to show up: I did all of the National Geographic interviews at my desk, but in the past I’ve done interviews in a studio or via what’s called a “tape sync,” where an audio engineer meets you in person and records while you talk to the host on the phone.)
2. Prepare some sound bites. You don’t want to be too stubborn about staying “on message”—we’ve all been frustrated by sources who won’t stray from their talking points—but it does help to think of a few sound bites and anecdotes. The publicist I worked with put together a really thorough, accurate press release that guided the hosts’ questions and gave me a sense of what to expect. But even if you don’t have a press release to draw from, come up with a few pithy answers to questions you know you’ll face, and practice them. Even if you don’t use those lines, having them in your pocket will make you feel more confident and, ironically, more able to have a natural-sounding, informative conversation with the host.
3. Catch up on relevant current events. You don’t have to know everything—see #7—but you don’t want to be caught unawares if there’s a major related event in your interviewer’s listening area. So do take a few minutes to update yourself. For example, it was useful for me to know something about the coal-associated chemical spill in West Virginia, the coal-ash spill in North Carolina, and the fight over coal ports in the Pacific Northwest, even though none was mentioned in my story.
4. Set up your space, and yourself. Whether you’re doing interviews in a studio or at your desk, sleep, eat, and caffeinate properly beforehand. Have a glass of water and some throat lozenges within reach (normal reach, not Marco Rubio reach). Turn off your computer and phone so that you’re not tempted to look at a screen while you’re talking. Dress in clothes that make you feel like a professional, even though your listeners won’t see you. Oh, and sit up straight. Your posture is surprisingly audible.
5. Get comfortable, but not too comfortable. Writers tend to think of interviews as raw material, but on the radio—especially live radio—an interview is a performance. So while you do want to “be yourself,” be mindful of how you’re presenting that self. I’m a big “um”-er, and I tend to repeat myself (too many years of editing have made me a habitual self-editor). I can’t completely break those habits during interviews, but with a little extra attention I can rein them in. If you tend to talk a lot when you get nervous, make sure you’re keeping your answers to a reasonable length. If you get bored answering the same questions over and over, remember your original enthusiasm for the subject, and remind yourself that you’re getting a chance to talk about it to new people in a new way. And no matter your personal weaknesses, make sure you really listen to your host’s questions, and do your best to answer what’s asked. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s easy to start anticipating questions, especially when doing multiple interviews.
6. Be ready for both the overly broad and the overly specific. One host started an interview by saying, “OK, give me Coal 101.” Umm … if I hadn’t practiced a couple of talking points, I would have been completely flummoxed. Another host wanted to know how much money—an exact dollar value—that Congress should appropriate for carbon capture and storage research. (See #7 for my approach to that one.)
7. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” but offer an alternative. You know a lot about your subject, but you can’t know everything, and inevitably an interviewer or a caller is going to ask you something you don’t know. Don’t wade into unfamiliar waters—there be trouble—but don’t shut your host down, either. Try some variation on “I can’t speak to that particular issue, but what I do know is …” and then talk briefly about a related subject. Or tell your interviewer (and his or her listeners) where they can find out the answer. In other words, if you can’t answer the specific question, think of a way to offer some useful information.
8. Listen for the wrap-it-up music. Like the Oscars, a lot of radio shows play music to warn their guests when a segment is about to end. But during two of my interviews, I couldn’t hear the music over the phone line, which meant that the host had to unceremoniously cut me off. Whoops. So keep an ear out for the music, and an eye on the clock—that way you’ll know when the proverbial hook is coming, even if you don’t get a warning.
9. Hang on to your sense of humor. Things will go wrong, especially if you’re doing a live interview. You’ll stumble over someone’s name, or you’ll give a less than crystal-clear answer, or you’ll forget to make that last really important point. All you can do is laugh—on air, afterward with friends, or both. And then listen, learn, and write a blog post about how to do it better.
Top: 1948 radio microphone advertisement courtesy of Flickr user Joe Haupt. Creative Commons.