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Let Me Ask You a Question

question markIt’s much easier to answer questions when you have time to prepare. When you’re being interviewed by a journalist, grilled on the stand a trial, or trying to convince an HR manager to put you through to the next round, it helps to know the questions in advance. More often than not, you won’t have the questions in advance… or will you?

As a continuation of my series on messaging and positioning development from earlier this year, I wanted to make my next installment about how you can prepare for interview questions journalists might ask – but this advice could help you prepare for any interaction where you want to have exactly the right answer queued up.

Before sharing my tips for question and answer planning, I’d like to share a quick story about my days as a TA (teacher’s assistant) for the Mass Communications 101 Course at Utica College of Syracuse University. Each week I was responsible for administering the current events quiz. The quiz was simple – I would develop questions from the previous week’s headlines in The New York Times.

All students were required to read the newspaper each day in preparation for the quiz. Most students would cram before the quiz – and my friends on the lacrosse team would try to pry the questions out of me in advance. I never budged, but it’s true, if they knew the questions in advance, the quizzes would have been much easier. From my perspective, they already had the questions in advance – they just had to think about it. I think this is true for most interview scenarios as well. If you think about it, you can predict most of the questions you’re going to get in an interview.

How to Prepare a Question List

Let’s use the example of preparing for a journalist interview. If you read a few of the journalist’s recent articles, review their staff bio and check out a couple of their recent tweets, you’ll quickly get a feel for his/her personality. From here, put yourself in the journalist’s shoes. If you were interviewing you about the topic you’ll be talking about during the interview, what questions would you ask? What questions would yield the best responses – or sound bites – for the story they’ll write? What questions hard questions would you ask? What questions would you ask, even though you know it’s unlikely the other person would want to answer them? If you put yourself in the mindset of the reporter, it should be relatively easy to generate a list of 12 or so questions you could expect to get in the interview.

Now Come Up With the Worst-Possible Questions

Everyone has at least one skeleton in their closet. Maybe it’s something as innocent as a party picture you were tagged in on Facebook, or something more serious like a DUI conviction. Let’s assume the journalist you’re interviewing with has access to all the information from your life, what’s the worst possible question they could ask you? Why do I suggest you prepare for this question? Because in most cases – unless you’re a celebrity or politician – you’re probably not going to get that question. If you prepare for the worst, the rest of the “hard” questions will seem that much easier.

Ask Your Peers for Questions

Ask people on your management team what questions they would ask if they were interviewing you for the story. Your team is typically tuned-in to the most commonly-asked questions they encounter through their interactions with people outside your organization. You should come up with a couple more options for the list.

Now Answer Those Questions

Now that you have a list of questions you might ask, work on answering them one by one. Read the questions and answers out loud and work on your answer delivery. You want to answer questions concisely and with confidence. Better yet, have somebody on your team ask you the questions, to help you refine your timing even more. Feel free to have your mock interviewer through a couple of unplanned questions in there, to help you practice your improvisational skills – your ability to adapt to the interview and answer questions on the fly.

Now Practice Some More

The more you practice answering questions, the better you will be at it. The more preparation you put into preparing for the interview, the more likely you will communicate the right information at the right time – and reduce your risk of saying something stupid.

Develop Your Own Questions

Most journalists talk to hundreds of sources in a given year. They are most-likely an expert in your market and what’s going on in your industry. Develop your own set of questions you can throw back at the journalist during the conversation, to make the discussion more interactive and to help put you at ease during the exchange. Some of my favorite questions to ask journalists – particularly trade journalists – include the following:

  • Who is doing the best job in our industry?
  • What is the coolest product or service you’ve seen come to market the past three months?
  • How has our industry changed in the past three years?
  • What trends in our industry are you most excited about?
  • What types of stories are you most interested in covering?
  • What are your pet peeves when it comes to dealing with PR professionals or interviewees like me?
  • How can I be a better source for you in the future?
  • What question did you not ask me that you’ll wish you did when you start to work on your story?

These questions go a long way at giving you information you can use after the interview is over. I’d argue that they also help to differentiate you from the other sources the journalist is talking about. Most journalists like to talk about what they know from my experience. Don’t be afraid to tap into their knowledge and expertise, you might uncover that one nugget of wisdom you’ve been hoping for.

Parting Wisdom

If you ever get a question you don’t want to answer – or can’t for some reason, such as legal restrictions or getting yourself in trouble with the PR department, simply be honest with the reporter and they will typically respect your decision. It’s far better to justify your no-answer than to simply say “no comment.” Journalists hate to hear “no comment.” As an example, consider saying something like, “I’m not able to answer that question for you today, but here’s what I can tell you…” or “I’m not authorized to answer that question for our organization, but would be happy to work on providing you with a response following this interview.” Then do your best to follow-up on that latter example.

Again, if you read some of the articles the journalist has written, you’ll start to pick up on a pattern of answers that provide clues to the types of questions you might encounter during your interview.

What would you add? What tips do you follow to prepare for interviews? Share your ideas in the comments below.

NOTE: An incomplete draft of this post was originally published yesterday. I’m not sure how this happened – I apologize to anybody who read or shared the incomplete (and incoherent) draft.

(Image Credit: Question Mark? by LibertyGrace0 / Flickr)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.