Eight Interview Prep Tips I Use to (Try to) Avoid Becoming a Colour-Sound Bite (“CSB”) for Mainstream Media

In the first three months of this month, I have had the privilege (and I would also call it also a personal and familial/community responsibility) to speak on quite a few very controversial issues for media (print and radio). In many of these pieces, I was selected to speak as a representative of my cultural community, a job I took wearily and with precaution.

Looking back on the many pieces, I have to admit they weren’t all great interviews, and subsequently not all of what I wanted to say was published. Indeed, for most of them, where I would spend 20-30 minutes on the phone with the interviewer and often times 2-3 hours in preparation for what to best say, at most one or two lines would be used. Many times those lines would be what lawyers call, obiter dicta (side points in passing), rather than main points. In some of these pieces, my thoughts did not become the primary narrative.

Radio is even more difficult. Going into these interviews, you have an agenda of where you want the conversation to go, but the interviewer, station, and other interviewees can take the topic entirely different directions. I felt that way especially with the CBC Early Edition piece, where the Professor I was speaking alongside wanted to focus on the technical/diplomatic relationship between Canada and China, where my gameplan moving in was to try and destroy the relevance of that macro-level, trade relationship to most of our day to day lives as Chinese-Canadians just looking to get more politically engaged. I was worried that this story would define us/serve to divide us rather than allow us to pour attention to the progress/challenges we face at home in an election year.

Unfortunately, to-date, this conversation as continued to go that way, and again the blindness of the Chinese-Canadian struggle/need to organize continues.

In my work and in my mentorship, and thanks to advice from incredible mentors, I’ve started to pass on my interview opportunities to others (I’ve turned down my last four).

Many times, it’s just a matter of sending an interview request off to a mentor or someone I feel more qualified to speak to an issue. It is my hope that more women, especially women of colour and Indigenous women, replace the white male-dominated pundit/talking heads we see too much of on our TV and hear and read too much of on our radios and in our newspapers.

In that process of encouraging others to speak up and to present their views, I also do worry that they are prepared. It is not usual for people of colour and minorities to be more nervous and anxious about these interviews. For us sharing our perspectives exposes us to mix of external and internal pressures – not only from ourselves individually (for many, our greatest critic), but from our families (many of which told us to not speak up unless we have to) and our communities (often splintered/divided along several lines of migration, wealth, and regional difference).

We cannot expect to be talking pieces for entire complex diasporic communities, but that is the expectation that those less in the know or those wanting to sell sound bites want us to be. We’re easy, quick, accessible, educated and can put in comments that raise questions and tensions. These are tensions for the most part (although with more journalists of colour, this is changing) journalists will not have to lose sleep over. Either their piece gets hits or it doesn’t – either it helps them get their next big story or attention, or it doesn’t. The consequences lie primarily on us, who have to go back to our communities, attend networking events, and be judged by the few words that were printed in our names.

This is not to degrade the profession of journalism (one I admire so much) but rather to acknowledge that the written space does provide opportunity to hide behind corporate, editorial, or even what page and where it is published, ways. People will forget a bad piece from an author as soon as a good piece is written. People (especially those within our communities) will not forget when we shared our views, especially when they may have contributed to detrimental outcomes and we have to see each other once a week at Church, or at the same neighbourhood coffeeshops and community meetings.

Furthermore, there are also some journalists (conversations about which I have had with other journalists) who will be writing with a very clear agenda about what they want to say. They have mapped out their piece as an essay with a conclusion, and their looking for their evidence in the form of your quote. Frankly, I hate this kind of journalism. I love the kind that presents the nuanced views and leaves me thinking there is another chapter or a bigger story to be told. I love when a journalist tells me they went out trying to write one piece, but another one emerged on paper that challenged their own perceptions. Finality often doesn’t exist in most contentious issues that draw attention, but pundits get paid to take stances and draw conclusions (as premature as they may be).

Friends: be very, very careful of being utilized for your appearance and position (lawyer, person of colour, LGBTQ2+, professional) as a way for the journalist/opinion writer to meander and promulgate their own opinion through your words. You can say a whole 30 minutes worth but your one off-colour, or you ‘wish was off the record’ comment of honesty or internal debate or side chatter, will represent you and by extension the community.

To paraphrase and quote the words of a mentor:

“Canada is a construct in most people’s minds that is just white and for many of us of colour (and those who are more aware) we know that it is a lot more complicated than that. To get our proper voice and opinion in, we have to do the extra work of proving to them that we are of a different world as much as we have been able to survive in theirs for so long. In that act of showing them that we are ‘different’, we chip away at ourselves because it has never been accepted to be normal – might speak to the inner trauma that many of us have.”

With that being said, here are a few (seven) tips that I have employed myself to share with those being interviewed for the first time.

Will’s Eight Tips

1.Research, Research, Research: Research the topic inside out before you speak to the journalist. Memories fade, facts and figures that the journalists look to tie your comments to can be wrong/outdated/or not properly cited. My own personal rule is at least 1-2 hours prep per ten minute phone call.

2.Understand the Ethical Guidelines: Review the CAJ Ethics Guidelines and clarify beforehand whether the media you are interviewing for follows specific rules http://caj.ca/images/downloads/Ethics/ethics_guidelines.pdf – Depending on the source journalist standards may be different. Some are okay with publishing written email comments (my favourite, because I can cite and research). Others are okay allowing you to review quotes first before they publish. Others put a process for correction, after the fact. It’s good to know what the industry norms and standards are rather than to be caught off-guard.

3. Deep dive into the journalist/interviewer’s work: On that point, on norms and standards – research the journalist or show you will be on. For the radio ones I did, even though I admit I’ve only recently gotten into podcasting, I watched a couple episodes to understand style. Similar for print – many times experts are called in on follow-up pieces to news reports. It is good to see what the writer has been doing in that area and whether there are some underlying message being shared and whether they resonate with you. If they don’t, you may choose to pass the interview on, or else address your concerns directly with the journalist. Even if you are not published, it spares your thoughts or work being reduced into a ‘colour-sound bite.’

4. Find Dry Run Partners/Debaters: Run through a few mock interviews with people you trust (and who you respect for their difference of opinion). I would do it not only with my spouse, but also with close friends at parties (who I would tell about upcoming interviews), and over the phone with trusted mentors. Sometimes, you may come from different views on a topic – that opposition is helpful. In a few cases, texts back and forth clarified that I shouldn’t do an interview. In another, I got valuable advice on the direction I should steer my interview. Speaking to someone with experience can really lessen the nerves and clarify the bigger picture often missed when questions are being asked that you are unprepared to answer.

5. Record Your Interview Yourself! I am not the best at this – but try and record (and ask for permission to record) the call at the same time you are being interviewed. At the very least take some typed notes as you speak so you have a record of what you said. Clarify exactly when things are ‘on’ and/or  ‘off’ the record. A full record for yourself can be very important, especially if you want clarify something in your own social media post later or expand on points that weren’t published or gotten to.

6. Speak Your Truth, Presented Specific to You (With Caveats, As Necessary): I realize in interviews, many questions (particularly where the interviewer hasn’t yet done their homework in the same way you have) can be asked very broadly. It’s important to highlight your perspective and what you believe in, but it’s important to also put those important classifiers – this is what “I” believe, “I see the situation as,” “in my personal opinion only.’ It’s important to clarify when you speak as an individual (especially those with many professional responsibilities) and when you speak as a mouthpiece of an organization. I find that big sweeping statements such as ‘we’ or ‘our community’ or ‘most of us’ get picked up often and often times are only a partial picture of the point you are trying to get across.

7. Get Ready for Damage Control – If the quote in the preview or posted product isn’t exactly what you meant –  it’s time to do damage control. I like to get ahead of stories and share it myself with a full summary of what my point was. On a couple occasions I’ve had to ask journalists to make some corrections, which they can if it meets their journalistic guidelines.

8. Prepare for Social Media Backlash – Be aware of social media blow ups. Twitter accounts or Headline/Catchphrase choosers are often run by a completely separate person than the one interviewing you

To Conclude

I end off with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates which I think any of us stepping into the controversial arena of being interviewed by a journalist throws you into.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I am very hopefully with the new, fresh, voices on both sides of journalism – both writing and interviewing. In this way, we’re able to have more intimate dialogues that go to the heart and depth of issues rather than superficial comments that leave surfaces barely scratched. Yet, in this age of populism and financial difficulties, there will still be a huge market of journalism aimed at and for those who want the sound bites, especially the colour sound-bites, to rationalize and justify their superiority and validate their biases, prejudices, and racism.

I wish you luck in your interviews and look forward to the conversation this piece generates!

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