The five questions that any journalist will probably ask you – whatever you’re being interviewed about

Participants in our media training courses are often surprised when we explain how little knowledge of the subject matter most journalists have when they come to interview someone and how little time they have to do any research.

“How do you know what to ask the people you’re interviewing?” a lawyer in one of our sessions asked recently.  For him, extensive research and in-depth knowledge is automatic, an essential part of his preparation for a meeting with a client.


Our media trainer/journalist who has worked as a general reporter as well as a specialist for various national newspapers plus the BBC and ITV, thought about it for a few moments.  Unlike the lawyer, she would rush off to interview someone or pick up the phone to speak to them, with perhaps just a line or two about the subject that she was reporting on.

“I might not know much about the subject, but I know the questions to ask,” she explained.  It might sound illogical but there are certain standard journalistic questions that apply to almost every subject.  If you’re going to be interviewed by a journalist, it’s worth bearing them in mind.  Here they are:

1.  What’s happening here?  

It sounds so obvious – and it is.  If you don’t know anything about a subject the natural thing is to ask someone to tell you all about it.  This, of course, puts the interviewee in a strong position.  You can become a trusted source.  However, you need to think journalistically about it.

Journalists don’t want you to start with “The Earth cooled…” They want it the other way around – what’s the latest?  What’s the upshot?  What do people need to know? If you establish yourself as a good talker who can fill them in succinctly with latest developments, they’ll come back to you again and again.  Just make sure that you know whether you’re going to be quoted or whether you’re just talking “on background.” You obviously don’t want to find something that you’ve said to the journalist in confidence splashed all over the place.

2.  What’s going wrong?

No news is good news, as they say. We spend some time during our media skills training sessions looking at what makes a story and what interests the media and people often ask us about why journalists are always interested in bad news.  The truth is that if everything is ticking along nicely, thank you, there’s not much of a story.

However, problems, risks, dangers and things that need to be put right are more interesting.  After all, if you were sitting at your computer and someone rushed in to tell you that the system was working fine you wouldn’t be that interested.  But if they told you that it was about to shut down at any moment due to a virus – then you’d sit up and listen.  This kind of threat appeals to the amygdala, the “flight-or-fight,” part of the brain.  So, if you’re wondering how to prepare for a media interview it’s worth thinking about these dangers, risks and problems.  In particular, you need to decide whether they might reflect badly on you.  Could your organisation be accused of this?  Are you one of those that is behind the curve?  Make sure you have an answer.

3. What does it mean for my audience?

Or, to put it another way, what are the threats and opportunities for my readers/listeners/viewers? Don’t forget that the journalist doesn’t really care about you – or himself or herself – for that matter. The only the thing they’re really concerned about is their audience.

Or, to put it another way, what are the threats and opportunities for my readers/listeners/viewers? Don’t forget that the journalist doesn’t really care about you – or himself or herself – for that matter. The only the thing they’re really concerned about is their audience.

Whether you’re talking about a risk or an opportunity how it affects the audience is essential.  Very often journalists will grab the attention of that audience with a danger or threat, as in point two, before going on to offer a solution.  Problem to solution is generally a good way of thinking about your points in a media interview or in a presentation.

By identifying a problem, you appear to be on the ball and looking after your own interests and those of your clients.  By then offering a solution you come across as knowledgeable, practical and concerned.  If you’re talking to a print journalist you could even offer three, four or five top tips to avoid whatever the threat might be.

4. What needs to change?

Journalists love to be able to report that someone is calling for change.  There’s nothing a like a campaign as far as the media is concerned.  Reform is needed!  This is a wakeup call!  You know the sort of thing.  The good news for anyone about to do a media interview is that this presents a great opportunity to gain some media coverage.  Identify the problem and then talk about what your industry needs to do to solve it.  Our opinion formers media training course is increasingly popular.

In it, we coach senior executives, board members and leaders of all kinds of organisations on how to gain traction with the media by identifying themes and trends that will resonate with their target audience.  We look at how they can advocate change and call for reform in order to raise their profile and establish themselves as thought leaders.

However, the “What needs to change?” question also presents a risk to interviewees.  During the authentic role-play interviews that we do during our media training courses, we’ll often ask our participants: “So you’re calling on the minister to…?” or “And you want the regulator to take action here…?”  Very often the interviewee will be led into agreeing.  As a result, the journalist has a great story but suddenly the interviewee finds themselves in confrontation with the government or the regulatory body.   Having an answer prepared for these questions is essential.

5. Where do we go from here?

The media are fascinated by the latest developments in any sector, whether it’s business, politics, pharmaceuticals or retail. “Journalism is the relentless pursuit of the new,” or, as one of our experienced media trainer/journalists puts it more prosaically: “It’s the ‘news,’ not the ‘olds,’” Obvious, really, isn’t it?

But, having covered where we are now the journalist will probably want to look ahead.   After all, we all like to know what’s going on the world but having a head start by knowing what will be happening in our sector next year or in three years’ time is even better.  So, be prepared to be asked for a bit of crystal ball gazing.

Here too there are risks.  You might find yourself being drawn into making a prediction that could upset customers or make you look foolish in front of your colleagues and competitors.  Make sure that you’re confident about what you’re forecasting.  If you’re really clever, of course, you can subtly introduce ideas that fit in with your unique selling points or any campaigns that you’re running.  Yes, you want to help the journalist but, as with any interview that you’re preparing to do, think about what you’re going to get out of it.

Just a final thought – and this should give you confidence.  As we say to the participants on our media training courses, you’re the expert. You know more about your business than almost any journalist who interviews you.

They’ll just ask you some or all of the above questions, as they will with anyone that they’re told to go and interview.  By preparing for these questions you can ensure that you not only help out the journalist, but you also make the whole experience work for you too.


Posted by Simon Brooke on at

Leave a Reply