What to Do When the Interviewer Isn’t Prepared

When your counterpart isn't holding up the other end of the conversation

I do quite a bit of interviewing by choice (well over 200 by my count). I just don’t see how you get the word out on a new book or product offering without making yourself available. Unfortunately, though, all too often the interviewer hasn’t done his or her homework. In this quick post, I’ll discuss what to do if you happen to find yourself in this precarious situation.

Humanize the interviewer

Maybe Mr. Reporter or Ms. Talk Show Host is just swamped. Maybe the dog ate her homework or an emergency prevented him from reading your book or article, test-driving your product, etc. View the person asking the questions as an actual person. Empathize.

Do not get upset

You have a right to be a little miffed. After all, you took time out of your schedule and the interviewer could have at least spent five minutes checking out your web site, right? I couldn’t agree more, but getting upset serves very little purpose. Go to a bar later…

In the meantime, remember that potential listeners, viewers, and readers may very well have the same questions as your interviewer. That is, you can still educate the interviewer’s audience–as well as the interviewer.

Answer the questions asked

Perhaps you didn’t show up to talk about events in China, AOL, the Boston Celtics, the most recent Twitter redesign, or how to monetize a website. Being evasive or completely non-responsive is only going to irritate the interviewer and, trust me, things are likely to spiral downward from there.

View the person asking the questions as an actual person. Empathize.

Do your part, especially if you’re live. Play ball. Remember the previous rule.

But steer the answers into a better direction

Even with oddball or not totally relevant questions, you still have an opportunity to influence the conversation. Many if not most questions have a great deal of wiggle room. For instance, I was asked on a recent TV appearance about the “stickiness of websites.” Now, I can talk about this ad nasueum, but it wasn’t terribly germane to the supposed topic of the interview. And it can open Pandora’s Box.

No bother.

I said a few things to answer the question, but related it on the fly to platforms and, in this case, Facebook.

Once I moved the conversation closer to my heart (intentional Rush reference), the interviewers improvised and started asking me questions related to the book.

Know when to say “I don’t know”

Even chatty types like me occasionally get stumped. In fact, you could write several libraries filled with large books about what I don’t know. And that’s an important limitation to understand. You’ll do a few things by being honest when stumped. First, you will communicate to the interviewer that you respect his/her time. More important from your perspective, though, you’ll save valuable time. You can then hopefully answer the questions that you were supposed to answer from the get-go.

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What say you?

philanimated

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2 Comments

  1. Daragh O Brien

    Phil
    Excellent points. I do a lot of talking to the media as the “Voice of Data” whenever an information quality, governance, or privacy issue blows up.

    One angle that I have learned to be wary of is where the interviewer has prepared, but for a different interview to the one that you’ve prepared for. This can happen by accident (misplaced notes, lack of understanding) or by design (wanting a “credible voice” to hit a talking point that matches an editorial line that is being pursued).

    In those situations I’ve found that, given the small window available in a live interview in particular, you need to take control quickly. Clearly but politely spell out why you won’t talk about the angle the interviewer has asked about. Restate the area of expertise you are talking from and about, and then lead the interviewer towards ‘safe ground’ by volunteering the angle.

    Good interviewers who made an honest mistake will grab the lifebelt and start swimming themselves, which is what you want to have happen. Bad interviewers will grab the life belt and let you pull them to shore (more work for you, but more time talking between interruptions … i mean questions). Really bad interviewers will grab the life belt and try to pull you in to deep water you’re not ready for.

    This is like the your point about steering but is a little more sensitive as you need to be alert to whether it was an honest mistake or part of an editorial agenda.

    An example recently for me was when I was asked to go on a national lunchtime radio show to talk about data sharing in Government. There had been a mishandling of a clash of data in our tax and social welfare departments which mean that for the first time some pensioners were getting tax demands for excess income. I was “Mr Data Protection and Governance” to explain why this was legal and something that would happen more.

    One of my clients is one of the Government depts affected. One of my stakeholders is our national Privacy regulator. So I did a fact check with both of these stakeholders before going on air.
    On air the first question was “”Who is to blame for this mess?”, which I replied to by pointing out that that wasn’t my area of expertise and pointing the finger of blame doesn’t address the underlying issues, which were how and why data could be shared and why it might not have been done before.

    After a stammer and a sigh of relief from the interviewer we got on with things. My way.

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      Great points, Daragh. I didn’t cover the, shall we say, “less than benevolent” interviewer.

      What do others think?

      Reply

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