During my days as a journalist, I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of politicians, business leaders and CEOs. My objective was the same each time – help them tell their story in a compelling and passionate way. Some were much better than others. Warren Buffett always killed it, so did Bill Clinton. Oscar de la Renta was amazing. But why were they such great interviews? For sure, their success was a great story, but there were other reasons why they did so well, reasons I believe any interview subject should keep in mind:
- Speak from the heart: The best interviews were with people who passionately and effortlessly stayed on message. This was easy for some, excruciatingly difficult for others. I found, time and again, that one personal story could help deliver a message and, in the end, could reveal so much about professional sensibilities. You can learn a lot about former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, for example, when you get him talking about sailing. He doesn’t have to talk about data storage mechanisms to get a larger point across about teamwork. And Warren Buffett doesn’t have to talk about comparative rights and relative prices of Class A and B stock to push a message. He loves bridge because it requires tremendous restraint and focus – both good things to know when playing the market.
- Keep it conversational: Surprisingly, some of the most powerful individuals on the planet have struggled when attempting to deliver their message (no, I won’t name names). The best interviews I did – Buffett, former First Lady Laura Bush, Ron Howard, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to mention a few – weren’t interviews, they were conversations. They didn’t follow talking points, and they didn’t struggle to stay on message. They sat down and engaged, one on one, providing a great portrait of what they stand for, what motivates them, what inspires them, what they believe in. I believe the audience got a real sense of who these individuals are.
- Be nimble: It certainly is not uncommon for a TV anchor to completely change the agreed upon talking points right when the live interview starts. In fact, it happens all the time. It’s important to be prepped on the headlines, know the news cycle and think about ways to use the news to prop up the message you’re trying to articulate.
- Control the conversation: This is one of the greatest missteps in the interview process – letting the anchor or reporter control the interview. Some are certainly more in control than others, but for the most part, it’s easy for the interview subject to take over. Once the question is asked, the platform is yours – take charge and own it. The time and space is yours to control.
- Seize the moment: With TV, you’re probably looking at a couple minutes, five at the most. In print, you’re lucky to get a thousand words, so you better make sure that you do well in that small space. Enjoy the moment, play to your audience, keep it light and conversational, and speak from the heart.
An interview can be stressful, both for the reporter and the person being interviewed. But both sides want the same thing: an accurate and interesting look at a topic. By keeping these tips in mind (admittedly easier said than done), both sides can benefit – and so too does the audience.