Comment: How to do the perfect interview

Rachel Hicks: 'Never lose your cool in an interview. Ever.'
Rachel Hicks: 'Never lose your cool in an interview. Ever.'

By Rachel Hicks

There is no perfect interview.

However well you perform (and let’s face it interviews are a performance), however many key points you include and negative lines of questioning you dodge, someone will always criticise your body language or your shirt. Ladies, we get it even harder as they often go for our lipstick too.

Despite defending herself heroically in the face of the Paxman onslaught on Newsnight recently, I was distracted by the way junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith repeatedly drank her water and put her glass down soooo precisely. Was this an outer manifestation of the inner rage she was experiencing at being roundly humiliated in front of almost half a million viewers (and now many more via YouTube repeats)?


This takes us to a few rules to help produce as good an interview as possible:

Rule No. 1
If you are not the right person to do the interview, don’t do it.

Something Ms Smith should have had the courage to say to the faceless Whitehall officials who sent her to the slaughter.

Rule No. 2
Never agree to an interview until you have as full a brief as possible.

This should include:
• The full facts of the story. You should at least know what’s in the press release your organisation sent to the media. Preferably lots more.

• Who is your audience, beyond the presenter?

• What’s the interview is going to cover? Less chance of nasty surprises.

• Whether you will be live or pre-recorded (a lesson John Prescott learned the hard way).

Rule No. 3
Remember that you are the EXPERT.

This should give you the confidence to deal with the questions. Many journalists are full of bluster, don’t let them rock you.

If you are not the expert on the subject, I refer you to Rule No. 1.

Rule No. 4
Prepare 2-4 key messages – and stick to them.

On the whole, journalists want a good interview, not to trip you up. It’s more than likely Chloe Smith got it in the neck because Paxman was determined to punish the government for sending someone so junior when we all know it should have been George Osborne in the hot seat. Or perhaps he was bored. Either way Smith did an incredible job of answering his increasingly irate questions armed with virtually no information whatsoever. Key messages are vital but they need lots and lots of evidence to back them. Oh, and they are only any use if Rules 1-3 have already been applied.

I advise against a Michael Howard style parrot repetition of key messages as displayed in the legendary 'did you threaten to overrule him' interview about the prison service. Another Paxman brawl, although this time the word is Paxman had to fill time as the next guest had been delayed. It was Howard who paid the price.

Rule No. 5
Never lose your cool in an interview.

Journalists have lots of tricks for getting a passionate (read 'off-message') response from you. In this respect, Smith deserves a medal, nay, a knighthood. She was magnificent. Utterly, utterly in control. I particularly liked her spark when she quipped, with a cheeky smile, “Good question Jeremy” after a right royal pounding on national TV.

Losing your temper makes you look defensive, ruins your credibility and your ratings. Don’t do it. Ever.

No one wants to be in the shoes Smith was wearing this week. But I firmly believe she did a sterling job, taking fire to which she should not have been exposed. She showed courage and good humour where others most certainly would not.

In short, you can never win a media interview, you can only be as prepared as possible. Keep your wits and facts about you and always remember why you agreed to it – to get YOUR message out there. Veteran of the press corps big guns, Henry Kissinger, knew all about this, often asking: "Has anybody got any questions for my answers."

Rachel Hicks is the managing director of media consultants, Radiant Media. She is a former BBC news reporter and programme presenter. Contact her via www.radiantmedia.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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