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Jeremy Paxman's principles for media interviews

For many years Jeremy Paxman has been the leading news and current affairs television interviewer of public figures in the UK.  I can safely say that without exception every training course I run on media interviews at some point will include a discussion about his style and the effectiveness of that approach.   Recently the great man shared his guiding principles which he has found useful as an interviewer, and for me they offer a checklist to see if the advice I offer is appropriate.  Not everyone I have worked with over twenty years will go onto Newsnight and fall into Paxo’s clutches, but an interesting exercise nevertheless!

1. JP: The whole process is about the audience. The interviewer is in a privileged position to be able to ask questions of an interviewee that a member of the audience would like to ask or to which they want the answers.  
JB: I think that is right.  Interviews are far better when they are focused upon and addressing what the audience wants to know.

2. JP: Be clear in your own mind what it is that as an interviewer you want to know. Be determined to get that information and don’t give up until you have it – or the audience recognise that the interviewee has chosen not to provide it.
JB: Objective setting.  The journalist is looking for an outcome from the interview in the same way you, the interviewee, may be.  The objective may be different or may be the same. Your focus should be on making the interview the one you want, not necessarily the one your interviewer wants.  You have to be equally determined to achieve your objective.

3. JP: Know your stuff.  Be in a position where you understand the topic - otherwise how will you know if you are getting proper answers rather than flannel.
JB: As a part of your preparation it is important that you recognise your expertise on the subject, this will give you confidence. In addition your preparation around the specific topic areas for the interview puts you in a good place to be able to deal with in-depth questioning.

4. JP: Follow up any inconsistencies or uncertainty in responses by the interviewee.
JB:  Your planning allows you to know what you want to deliver and will help build strength and conviction in your responses. The interview is no place for original and creative thought!

5. JP: Manage the time well and get to the key issues quickly.
JB: Totally agree.

6. JP: Use simple questions. Encourage understandable answers.
JB: Yes, the interviewee should play their part and be able to deliver their material in a form that the audience can access easily. As point 1 – it is about the audience!

7. JP: Television is good at conveying impressions but very bad at facts. In television interviews you try to reveal what kind of person the interviewee is – the human being behind the message and the suit.
JB: Yes, television provides pictures to an audience and they are important.  Whatever your messages they should be supported by the conviction you offer within your delivery.  If you sound and look like you believe it, the audience might believe it too!

8. JP: Above all else - Listen! Respond to what is being said; the interview is not a pre-planned list of questions in sequential order.
JB: Yes, in theory that’s great.  However, I suspect that sometimes questions are asked because of their impact for the television audience not necessarily because they go to the heart of an issue. From an interviewee perspective make sure you address the question en route to delivering a message you want to get across – so you have to listen too in order not to appear to be avoiding or ignoring questions.

I have long said that it is the manner of presentation and the environment that people find so challenging with Jeremy Paxman.  The theatre and the drama is often the challenge not necessarily the questions themselves.  Any question is easy…if you know the answer.  As the subject matter expert you do!