Communications and External Affairs

Interviews

So you've put out your press release or put yourself forward as an expert, and now the media want to speak with you.

Whether you're a seasoned media pro or are just starting out, it's always worth brushing up on your interview skills.

Here we talk you through the process - if you're well-prepared you should find the interview experience enjoyable and worthwhile.

How to prepare for your interview

Microphone

Hopefully, the press release will have described your work succinctly and it will just be a matter of the journalist asking you to reiterate what you have already said. Rehearse a few questions and answers of the "what, where, who, why, how?" variety. If your research is complex, think of some easy analogies to explain it better. Do you have something visual that might be good for a photograph or TV cameras?

Whether the interview is for the press, radio or television, the following simple guidelines should help protect you against distortion and enable you to get across what you want to say:

Five golden rules

  1. Begin with the main points and ideas.
  2. State your point clearly and repeat it frequently if necessary.
  3. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  4. Use simple, intelligible examples to support your statements.
  5. Don't try to cover everything.

"Jargon and buzz words are so often used in specialist areas of work that it can be hard to even realise you are using them. Make a list of all the technical words used in your work and either explain them beforehand or don't use them. You will be surprised how intelligent the audience is when you cut out this source of confusion and insecurity." Dr Jonathan Hare, Visiting Lecturer in Science Communications

How to prepare for your press conference

We will organise the practical side of the event (venue, invitations, press information packs). You will be required to think about how you will present yourself and your work. The easiest format is a short presentation of about 15 minutes, followed by a 15-minute question and answer session. Be mindful of the golden rules when preparing your talk and when answering questions. We will wind-up the event. Some journalists may want to talk further to you afterwards, perhaps to get more explanation of a complex idea, or to dig a little deeper into the subject matter. Beware of journalists trying to catch you off guard.

What to expect as a 'Sussex expert'

We maintain a list of faculty members willing to talk to the press about their specialist areas. If you're happy to be included in this list, you will need to email us your expertise and contact details. Academics who are experts in fairly general fields (health, politics or the environment) find their knowledge and opinions are frequently sought by the media. Others are called upon only if their specialisation suddenly becomes topical.

If you are contacted directly by a journalist, you probably won't be given much time to gather your thoughts (a news reporter will be up against deadlines). Don't worry too much about trying to give a detailed analysis. Reporters are usually looking for no more than a sentence or two and may just want you to talk in a general way.

If you are able to buy some time, ask the reporter to call you back. In any event, remember to take the reporter's name, phone number and the name of their media organisation.

Your big fears - and how to prevent them

Misrepresentation

Journalists rarely set out to misrepresent or misquote people. Errors usually occur because of the speed at which journalists have to work. You can help to avoid such problems by patiently explaining your work to the reporters and checking to see if they have understood you. Be helpful, build up a good rapport and you'll minimise disappointment.

"I have been upset by headlines or subjective remarks made about me, but it hasn't actually done any harm. Be philosophical about it. Most of the mistakes aren't that terrible." Dorothy Sheridan, Honorary Professor of History and former head of Special Collections.

Off the record

There is no such thing as 'off the record'. If you don't want the reporter to know about something, don't tell them. Things said 'off the record' have a nasty habit of appearing in print.

The Devil's advocate

If a reporter chooses to give you a hard time or attempts to rubbish your work, don't rise to the bait. Stay calm and repeat your message. If it is about University policy, refer the reporter to the press office.

"You need to be able to sniff out when there's a set-up of the 'wasting taxpayers' money' type of thing. I walked in to that trap a couple of times. Like anything else, the more you do it, the more intuitive you get about it." Andy Medhurst, Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Cultural Studies.

Speaking to print journalists

This may be a face-to-face interview, or a phone call. The reporter may record the interview, but is just as likely to take notes.

Before the interview starts, check:

  • Whether the reporter is a specialist or a general reporter. Specialists may already have some knowledge or your work. General reporters will need more information.
  • Whether they are working to a tight deadline. You may have to respond quickly.

And afterwards:

  • Check the reporter has all the information he or she needs.
  • Suggest to the reporter that he or she contacts you if they need anything else.
  • It is unlikely that a journalist will show you the full article before publication, but you might be shown the words that will be attributed to you.
  • Find out when the article is likely to appear.

The radio interview

"I was asked to go on Radio 4's 'Today' programme. While the presenter was going through the papers, I was briefed as to what the first question would be. But the presenter then turned round to me and asked a completely different question." Erik Millstone, Professor in Science and Technology Policy, SPRU.

The first approach by a radio station will usually be made by a researcher or a producer on the phone.

Before you agree to take part, try to find out:

  • What are they expecting from you?
  • What questions will you be asked?
  • Will the interview be live or recorded?
  • What kind of audience does the programme attract?
  • Will anyone else be involved?

Meanwhile, the radio researcher will be establishing:

  • Your views on your subject.
  • Whether you can talk reasonably fluently.
  • The angle from which the presenter will approach the interview.

After talking to you, the researcher will write a lead into the interview and devise some questions based on the conversation. Always think in advance about likely questions and try to have in hand a couple of good examples to illustrate what you are saying.

You may be interviewed over the phone, or you could be asked into the studio.

The phone interview
  • Unless you already know it will be a live interview, don't be rushed into agreeing to do it immediately. Take some time to collect your thoughts and arrange a time for them to phone back.
  • Remember the five golden rules.
The studio interview
  • Be punctual: studios are precisely booked.
  • Sit comfortably about a foot from the microphone.
  • Don't fidget, click your fingers, jangle your loose change or play with your keys.
  • Be yourself. Talk on air as to your friends.
  • Remember the five golden rules.
  • Don't worry about 'drying up'. That's the interviewer's problem.

If you are very dissatisfied with your answer in a pre-recorded interview, you can ask to be allowed to answer that particular question again.

Please always ask the presenter to mention that you are from the University of Sussex.

The television interview

As for radio, the first approach by the researcher or producer is, in effect, an audition. You are being checked for confidence and fluency. It is important at this stage to remember that what you say will be guiding the researcher and that you are setting the agenda for your contribution to the programme.

Before you agree to take part in a programme, find out all you can about the circumstances in which you are being asked to appear.

  • What will be the line of questioning?
  • Who will be doing the interview?
  • How long will it take?
  • Will anyone else be taking part?
  • Will it be live or pre-recorded?
  • If pre-recorded will it be in a studio or at the University?

Please ask the interviewer to mention the University and where appropriate make sure that the programme credits mention the University of Sussex. Also make sure that your own name and title are correct.

Location, location, location ...

If the crew are coming to interview you on campus, decide in advance whether you would be happy being interviewed in your own room, in which case think about where you would sit and what would be a suitable background for filming. Do you really want your collection of festering coffee cups, or your withered pot plants in the shots? Alternatively you could be interviewed outside. The decision is yours.

Preparation

Remember the five golden rules. In addition, you should realise that 60 per cent of your communication will be non-verbal. How you look and behave in front of a camera will colour everything you say.

How you should look
  • Make sure your hair is tidy. It's the first thing viewers notice.
  • Wear plain, mid-hue colours. Blues, greens and browns are best.
  • Women should avoid wearing too much jewellery.
  • Men should shave if necessary as the camera highlights stubble.
Your body language
  • Look the interviewer in the eye.
  • Stand or sit upright - beware chairs that make you slouch.
  • Smile and look interested in what the interviewer is saying.
  • Avoid obvious nervous mannerisms (clenching your fists, fiddling with your hair).
Technical hazards

You need to be aware of your microphone - if it is by the side of your chair don't knock it; if its pinned to you don't play with your tie or blouse - but otherwise ignore all equipment. Concentrate on the interviewer. Speak at a relaxed conversational speed. Be yourself.

After the interview, don't rush away from your chair. You may still be in view. Wait until you are asked to move. You may find that after the interview the cameraman wants to take what are called 'reaction shots'. These are shots of the interviewer reacting as you talk. These shots give the producer a separate film of the interviewer which allows him or her to edit the film of you; eg they can disguise a cut in your interview by splicing in a shot of the interviewer.

"Try not to let the whole 'crew thing' (sound and cameras, gaffers, fixers, producers, directors etc) with its concentrated use of time and tape put a pressure on you to let the last 'take' you just made do. If you are not happy with a particular shot then let them know this and ask for the shot to be taken again. A lot of editing will be done after the filming which you will not have any control over, so make sure the shots are as good as possible before they get to this stage." Dr Jonathan Hare, Visiting Lecturer in Science Communications.

And finally...

If you make it on air and you're happy about how you appear, that's great. However, you may find that the programme does not use the interview of you after all. This does not reflect on your performance. Television producers always make sure that they have more material than they need and schedules are frequently changed at the last minute depending on what news has broken through the day. It is the nature of the business and you shouldn't take it personally.

More information

If you've read all the guidance but still want to speak to somebody, you can either email press@sussex.ac.uk or call Jacqui Bealing (ext. 7437) or James Hakner (ext. 7966).

Claudia Hammond, BBC broadcaster and Sussex alumna

“Journalists basically just want you to fill the time with something that’s interesting. We get praised if the interviewees explain their work really well. Ninety-nine per cent of interviews are about trying to get people to say something interesting that other people haven’t heard about.”