Imagine you are in a broadcast interview and a journalist asks you something you simply do not know how to answer.
It is a scenario that delegates on our media training courses often tell us they are most worried about.
It makes people feel embarrassed and worried that their interview is going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
At the same time, there is invariably a real reluctance to admit they don’t know the answer. It goes against the grain.
But is there anything wrong in telling the reporter “I don’t know”?
Not according to one high-profile journalist.
Nick Robinson, a presenter on Radio 4’s Today’s programme, would like to see more openness about not knowing the answer to a question.
Writing in the Radio Times, Mr Robinson says that interviewees shouldn’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
He said: “As I return from my holidays, my resolution is to do my best to reward those who are willing to be open about the choices they face.
“And who are willing to say those three most truthful words in politics “I don’t know.”
Mr Robinson’s article does focus on the political interviews for which he is famed, particularly those where the interviewee answers a completely different question to the one that was asked.
But the same advice applies to all media spokespeople.
Of course, we all want to appear certain when we are in front of cameras and microphones. But sometimes, no matter how thoroughly you prepare, there may be a question you can’t answer.
Or, you may just have one of those brain fade moments where you draw a blank.
Saying “I don’t know” to a specific question isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t detract from your expertise if it is used sparingly.
It is open and honest and it is far better than getting drawn into speculating or ignoring the question, which makes spokespeople appear evasive and obstructive and frustrates audiences.
The key to admitting you don’t know is not to leave your answer there.
Saying “I don’t know” on its own surrenders control to the journalist. Instead, be proactive and go on to tell us what you do know. This will help to ensure you still sound helpful and cooperative.
So, your answer would start something like: “I don’t know, but what I can tell you is…”.
If it is a print interview, you can adapt this and promise to come back to the journalist after the interview with the information they are looking for.
It is worth pointing out journalists don’t expect you to know the answers to everything they ask, particularly when they move away from the main subject on to wider issues. But they ask them anyway, because sometimes, particularly when a spokesperson gets drawn into speculation or making an answer on the spot with these ‘while you are here’ type questions, it can lead to strong stories.
Another fascinating part of Mr Robinson’s article was his criticism of spokespeople appearing for interview armed with “pages of carefully typed lines to take, whatever questions they have been asked.”
This is something we also highlight on our media training courses and have discussed before in this blog.
The danger with taking extensive notes into a radio interview is it can make spokespeople sound scripted, rehearsed and even robotic and evasive if they are answering something completely different to what has been asked.
And they may even resort to simply reading their notes aloud.
None of this helps to create the natural-sounding conversation that is crucial to good media interviews.
The more natural a message sounds, the more likely the audience is to believe what is being said. Spokespeople should feel empowered to put messages into their own words
They should, of course, still do their preparation and learn their brief. But this shouldn’t happen in the studio.
Will spokespeople follow Mr Robinson’s advice? I don’t know, particularly when it comes to politicians. But what I can tell you is that spokespeople shouldn’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know.”
Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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