Giving Great Quotes
Tips to sound your best when speaking to members of the media
Keep it short and concise
Always use short, punchy sentences and get to the point.
If you look at most of the quotes in a news article, they are 1-2 sentences. That’s what they’re looking for, the majority of the time. If you are being filmed for a tv news piece, you likely will be on camera for a matter of seconds. If you’re being interviewed on the radio or a podcast, you may have a little bit more time, but still, concisely-made good points are best.
There is no situation in which a print or broadcast journalist is going to use long, meandering quotes, filled with deep backstory. If you give them that, there are a variety of not-great consequences:
- You may be cut out of the article.
- The writer may patch together a frankenquote from what you said (that they may not run by you).
- They may use the substance of your ideas, but not mention you.
- They may paraphrase your ideas into the quotes they wish you’d said.
- They probably won’t call you again.
On the positive side, if you are someone who gives smart, tight quotes, that journalist is going to not only use more of what you said, but they’ll call you again. Watch/listen to Kathleen Hall Jamieson do any interview - she is amazing at it.
You don’t need to convey the full context of any issue in an interview. You are providing commentary to support the journalist’s argument. Give examples to make your point, but don’t tell stories. There usually isn’t room for stories.
You are likely going to be nervous, and this will encourage anyone to ramble. This is where preparation can help.
Jot down your main points
As you think about the topic of your upcoming interview, ask yourself these questions in advance:
- What are the key points you would make, based on your expertise?
- Knowing the subject, what are the most valuable contributions you can make?
- What do you think a writer focusing on this topic should know?
- If you’re summarizing your own study, what were the main findings in a nutshell?
Make a list of 3-5 short, clear statements or phrases that answer those questions, and have this list in front of you as you do the interview.
To be clear, you aren’t necessarily meant to read your cheat sheet verbatim during the interview, but having those topics in front of you can be a good reminder of what you want to focus on.
You can also steer the conversation toward these points if you feel what you’re being asked is out of your area of expertise or not quite the right question.
Most good journalists will ask at the end, “Is there anything else I need to know?” If you feel like the journalist missed a key point, use your list to offer them that information.
Practice your main points
If it makes you feel more comfortable, practice delivering your main points, either alone or to a friend or family member, ideally who isn’t an academic.
If you have an audience, ask them if what you’re saying makes sense, and make clear you want their honest answer. After you’ve done that, ask what questions they have. It can be revealing to see what they didn’t understand, which may be a sign you need to make fewer assumptions about what a general audience will already know.
You may also choose to not practice. By just having your main points succinctly drafted, you’re ahead of the game.
Read up on current events
Sometimes a journalist wants to talk about your area of expertise in light of a recent event. You may not have any familiarity with the recent event, and that’s fine - you’ve hopefully already made that clear to them. But you’re best served by pulling up a few news stories about it so that you’re familiar with the basic details and can best apply your knowledge to the situation.
You can decline to answer
If you feel like you don’t have the expertise to answer a particular question, or you’re being asked a “gotcha” question then don’t answer. You can politely tell them you don’t think you’re able to speak to that one. Keep it casual.
You are doing an interview because you have a body of knowledge someone wants to know more about. You’ve got this. As much as this guide is meant to prepare you for difficult scenarios, the truth is that most interviews will be just fine. A smart person will ask you some questions, and that’ll be that. Don’t prepare so much that you get in your own head.