Interview soundbites are essential to journalists. They need those quotes and will often turn them into headlines. And that is why, at The Media Coach, we always spend time during a media training session helping clients prepare their own interview soundbites. This ensures they get their points across succinctly and coherently, in a media-friendly way, that makes an interview a win-win situation for the interviewee and the journalist.
Unfortunately for journalists, if an interviewee doesn’t do this vital preparation it can mean the process is more like a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. There is an out and out battle to try and extract a few quotable words. Faced with dull and unquotable answers, journalists are highly likely to resort to trying to put words in an interviewee’s mouth to get something useable. [And that is why we think media training is so important as I wrote in a previous blog linked here].
Don’t let journalists write their own interview soundbites
A humorous take on this journalistic trick was highlighted in a montage on the US current affairs programme Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Time and again you see presenters or anchors suggesting a quote and the interviewee repeating it.
So, as we see in the video, a journalist may try to get something quotable by asking a question phrased with emotive or subjective language. As a journalist myself, it was not an ‘interview trap’ I was specifically taught; rather I just learnt quickly that if I asked a bland question I tended to get a bland answer.
Nervous interviewees in particular, or those doing an interview in a language which isn’t their mother tongue, often unwittingly repeat language from the question – helpfully fed to them by the journalist – to give themselves thinking time at the start of their answer. While it can be benign with merely an attempt to make an interviewee more succinct and ‘sexy’, it can also lead to unfortunate headlines and leave interviewees thinking they have been misquoted.
That’s why we strongly encourage people to develop their own quotes rather than relying on the journalist’s version of the soundbite. We also warn people to be careful about agreeing to or simply saying “Yes” in response to a journalist’s paraphrasing of an answer. It’s much safer to develop your own effective soundbites before the interview.
Beware the headline-grabbing last question
Another example of the soundbite-seeking technique is to round off an interview with a headline-grabbing closing question. This can be particularly dangerous if the interviewee is aware that the interview is coming to an end, so relaxes and drops their guard.
How to avoid falling into this trap was demonstrated by Andrea Leadsom during a recent interview with Robert Peston (view the full 12-minute interview below but the last minute is the relevant part).
Seeking Ms Leadsom’s views on John Bercow’s role as Speaker of the House, Robert Peston uses phrases such as “impugned his impartiality” in his questions. When her answers are fairly careful chosen (and unquotable), he also tries the paraphrase technique by asking her if what she is really saying is Mr Bercow should “wind his neck in”. Spotting the trap, she skilfully (and with some humour) sidesteps it by evoking the famous quote from the BBC’s original version of House of Cards saying “You might say that I couldn’t possibly comment”.
How to stay safe and in control of the interview soundbites
For the less experienced at handling media interviews, the solution is threefold:
- Prepare thoroughly.
- Ensure your messages and soundbites are carefully crafted into a format the journalist can use.
- Remain vigilant throughout the interview to avoid repeating any headline-grabbing phrase fed to you by the journalist.
Here are some of the other blog posts I have written on this subject:
If that feels all rather difficult you may want to pick up the phone and talk to us about booking a short media training session. The Media Coach 020 7099 2212 or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Interview soundbites: prepare in advance or journalists will feed you theirs! - October 11, 2019
- Why critics of media training miss the point - August 6, 2018
- Live broadcast interviews: Keep calm and stay sharp - May 21, 2018
- Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms - March 4, 2018
- Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them - January 15, 2018
- Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities? - November 27, 2017
- Crisis Management Uber style: keep quiet and cover it up - November 22, 2017
- Misrepresented in the media? Why it may not be the journalist’s fault - October 24, 2017
- What not to do in a crisis? Follow Ryanair’s example of crisis management! - September 20, 2017
- Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing? - August 29, 2017