Master Class: 5 Interview Lessons from a Fortune 20 CEO

Last week, Propllr coordinated an interview between a top-tier business reporter and a former Fortune 20 CEO. In the past, the CEO has undoubtedly received hundreds of hours of training and practice speaking with media, analysts and the general public – so the poise with which the interview was conducted should not be surprising. Still, as someone who has been on both sides (in PR and spokesperson roles) of television, radio and print interviews, I was in awe.

Here are the main takeaways:

1. Answer the question that should have been asked.

On this interview in particular, the CEO was the expert. The interview itself focused on a specific area of corporate culture, and though the reporter undoubtedly did her research, it pales in comparison to the years of experience the CEO had.

While that may not always be the case, it is important to direct the reporter to where the story is – or where you want it to be – whether the story is about a specific topic or your company in general. This requires having a vision of what the most important takeaways are. If you can’t get to them in the general Q&A portion of the interview, without fail, interviews end with the, “Is there anything I missed?” question.

2. Practice the way you speak – your speed and intonation.

Though not the most important takeaway, this was the first thing I noticed as a differentiation point between the former CEO and most of the interviews I observe. Many interviewees are excited about the topic on which they’re speaking, whether it’s about their company or just providing market analysis. That means they talk quickly.

SLOW DOWN. It may sound as though you are only saying one word every minute, but for a reporter typing responses and taking notes, the speed is just right.

Most importantly, however, talking clearly and slowly conveys a level of confidence that makes you authoritative, while at the same time also allowing you to think more clearly about your word choice.

3. Use anecdotes.

Last week’s interview focused very much on the CEO’s experience, so it was bound to include anecdotes. But the extent to which they were effectively used was certainly impressive.

Most interviewees might want to get a participant’s approval before including them in a story that could be in print. While this is an important consideration, if you focus on stories that impacted or changed your view of a situation, it becomes personal – something that is important to share. (Of course, if it does include a part that could be considered negative, try not to include that company or individual’s name or details.)

4. Admit you don’t know.

“The honest answer is that I don’t know the answer.” This specific response came to a question about cause and effect inside the boardroom, something the CEO could talk about anecdotally, but could not state as fact. Instead of drawing a conclusion that might open the door to criticism, it was easier to admit that there’s no way to know whether it is true in every case.

Less experienced interviewees might feel pressured to draw definitive conclusions or even reveal information that they’d rather not say – revenues, growth, etc. At the very least, if the reporter considers it critical, you can always get back to them with the information at a later point or pass on the opportunity altogether.

5. Work in a sound bite.

While we hate hearing them over and over on television, sound bites work for a reason. They are little more than a phrase that sums up a point. Whether it is a simple way of stating what your product does or how you feel on a topic, it is important to work from the bullet points.

As a muted bystander, I could almost pull the bites out of the interview – ranking them with the likelihood of being included in the final piece. Here’s one of the winning phrases: “All success is accompanied by risk taking – calculated risk taking.”

While you may not have the same training or background as a Fortune 20 CEO, you can become more effective at interviewing like one.