Doing it Right – and Doing it Wrong

I said that the viewer is far less influenced by the content of your piece than by how you sound and look. But your boss is highly concerned with what you say. More importantly, you will only look and sound good if you are comfortable with the content. And you can do that by proper preparation. Never go into an interview and answer questions. Have points prepared and try to build bridges from the question to what you want to say. Then it’s easy to look good, sound good, and please your boss! Here’s a (semi) Real Example – I’ve changed the name of the company and a few other details omitted, but, essentially it’s fact.

Vanishing Aircraft

Donald-McEwan is a major American aircraft manufacturing company. Up until recently its aeroplanes had a good safety record, but in the last few months four of the older airliners – 7-11s – have crashed. All four incidents happened in or near the Bermuda Triangle. American black box safety requirements are not stringent and the reasons for the crashes are not known. Each of the planes just seemed to ‘disappear’ – no explosion, no suspicion of hijack, no missile attack. Airlines operating older versions of the aircraft are considering grounding them until more is known about the circumstances of the crashes. In the last three days trading your shares have fallen by fourteen percent.

Of course, not all interviews are challenging. Though the challenging ones are nearly all interesting for the viewer, listener or reader. Good news interviews can lack any form of grip for the customer. So different kinds of interview need different treatment.

Variations on the basic one-plus-one interview

Here’s the (theoretical) transcript of how the interview might go if the interviewee hadn’t done his homework and let the interviewer decide on the shape of the discussion: Q: As Shaw might have said, once is a mishap, twice carelessness, three times is stretching credulity to its limits. But four of your aircraft have gone down. Yet you don’t seem concerned. A: We are concerned. We’ve got a team of experts working to help solve the problem. They are co-operating with the authorities. Q: And their findings so far? A: So far they’ve not reported. But we’ve set up a committee to look into the whole thing and we’ll be releasing our finding as soon as there’s something, Q: Well the black boxes could have told you what happened. But the four missing planes didn’t have the black box fitted. A: The black box is very expensive to manufacture. But our experts are working as hard as they can to find a cause. We have world-class standards in the company. The committee met last week, and – Q: So people are dying, and you’re having a meeting. A: No. But we have to be sure of our findings. We need all the information before we can act. Q: But four aircraft have fallen out of the sky. Nearly six hundred lives lost. A: No. I mean, yes, people died. But the aircraft are perfectly safe. Q: You’re sitting there telling me they’re safe. While people are dying. A: No. I – Q: So can you assure me that no more aircraft will crash? Passengers fall to their deaths? A: Yes, of course. They’re perfectly safe. We’ve done tests… Q: But you’ve not done anything to the aircraft? A: As I said before we’ve called in a full team of experts. Q: But you’ve done nothing to the aircraft? A: Of course not. We’ve got a system. Procedures. Q: Well your procedures don’t seem to be working, do they? A: As I said… er … We have world-class standards. Q: Why don’t you ground the aircraft? A: There’s no need to. It could affect the share price. Q: So you’re risking people’s lives to make a few dollars? A: Of course not! Q: So you’re going to ground the aircraft? A: No. As I said before there’s no reason to. Q: So any one of the hundreds of similar aircraft operating all over the world could just drop out of the sky tomorrow? A: No. They won’t drop out of the sky. Q: Tell me honestly; when was the last time you flew in one? A: Er. I’m very busy. I travel by private company jet. Q: There are four hundred people who would be alive today if they’d not flown in your 797s. What have you said to the orphans, the widows, the grieving mothers? A: Well… We’ll be arranging a meeting with them to explain what’s happening. Q: So you’ve not bothered to talk to them. Let me get this straight: You’ve not grounded the aircraft; you’ve not talked to the victims’ relations and you’re no nearer finding out the cause. How many more people have to die before you do something to prevent these crashes? A: As I said… er … And so on and so forth. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! But there’s no reason to suppose he really was heartless and incompetent. He was just focussed on the bad news. Even more importantly, he’d not planned any good points to make. Carry on to the next part to see how it could have been handled.
In any interview, go in there with three positive points to make. I can’t explain why three is a good number – it’s probably something to do with the viewer’s attention span or something. But it works. Just as important as the three points, you must think of a way to bring those three points alive. It’s no good saying my company cares for the environment; you’ve got to give an example of something your company has done. A real story. And you can tell it in as much glowing detail as you like, as long as it’s something the viewer can see in his head. Three points, and illustrations. That’s all! Preparation is the key to being a successful interviewee. In the case of the vanishing aircraft some of the points you’ll have to face are:
  • No black box fitted.

  • Recommending grounding of the aircraft.

  • Shares losing value.

  • Passengers faced with a journey on a similar aircraft.

Not an exhaustive list, by any means, but a guide to set you thinking. And I mean thinking BEFORE the interview has started. Now think of three major points you want to make, regardless of what questions are asked. Write them down. If you’ve spent twenty years manufacturing aircraft your knowledge of the design, construction, operation, etc. of the things is huge. All that weight of knowledge needs to be sifted and three simple points prepared for the viewer. Your points might include:
  • The company makes entirely safe aircraft.

  • You’re doing all you can to prevent a recurrence.

  • Your company is a caring company – people’s lives are of enormous importance.

Now it’s no earthly good just sitting there and saying, “My company makes very safe aeroplanes”. The viewer just won’t believe you. You’ve got to paint a picture of how safe they are.

Point One

All the aircraft vanished in or around South America. Servicing standards may not be of the highest. But it’s no good saying that unsupported. It just sounds as if you’re blaming someone else. You need facts. You can consult your order books and see how many spare parts have been supplied to the operators. Let’s hope it’s very few or even none. For the sake of this example, I’ll say zero. This helps you a lot. All aircraft (not just this type) need proper servicing. This is the most important point, but you’ll not get a question about servicing, you’ll have to link to it from somewhere else. Could be from the ‘grounding’ question. And it’s a very technical point – you’ll need to think of an easy way for the interviewer and the viewer to relate to aircraft servicing. But when you’ve done that, you’ve got point one ready to go. And it’s your strongest point. The one that can save you and the company. So be ready to make it at the end of the interview even if you’ve already done it at the start.

Point Two

Okay – what are you doing to remedy the situation? It’s obviously a big problem for your company (apart from the humanitarian aspect), so you’ll be ready with quite a lot of cash and resources. You’ve obviously been in touch with the airlines concerned. You can’t look at the missing aeroplanes, so your next step would be to inspect the other aircraft of the same type operated by them. I’m presuming you were refused access. Otherwise you’d be working on the planes. Right – you have to put pressure on the companies through your Embassy. And be ready with a team of investigators and engineers if and when permission comes through.

Point Three

Have you visited some of the grieving parents or orphaned children whose plight resulted from the crashes? You must if you want to project a caring image. So for the sake of this example I presume you have! And do some research. Find as many examples as possible of your aircraft being used to save lives.

A Fourth Point

The black box question is a bit of a red herring, but it’s one you’ll have to deal with. The aircraft are missing, and had there been any boxes with them, they’d be missing too. But the lack of the things makes you look lax. Do you fit them as standard, or only when required? Either way you win. You need an analogy to help tell the story; maybe a customer deciding he prefers his new car without air bags fitted. There’s also the point that new aircraft sales go to the big operators like SIA, Lufthansa, BA, etc. After three or four years SIA buys new and sells off the old planes to less reputable airlines. SIA etc. always specify fitting of the boxes, but they don’t last forever. Not one of your strong points but you’ve got to face the question. Next is an imaginary transcript of how the interview might go with proper preparation.

The key to being a successful interviewee is to go where you want to go; to talk about the good things you, your company, your product, your organisation or whatever.

Here’s how the Donald-McEwan story might go if the interviewer went in there with positive things to say and talked about what he wanted to talk about, rather than just answering the questions.

This is another imaginary transcript. Similar questions, different answers:

Q: As Shaw might have said, once is a mishap, twice carelessness, three times is stretching credulity to its limits. But four of your aircraft have gone down. Yet you don’t seem concerned.

A: Let me tell you I’ve been flying all night. I just got back from Montevideo. I went down there to talk to some of the relatives of the missing people and try to find out something, anything, about what happened.

Q: And what did you find out?

A: I must be honest with you. Not a lot. Only one airline would let me get beyond the offices and onto the airside. But that airline doesn’t operate any of our planes – any Donald-McEwans. The others turned me down flat.

Q: So why didn’t you insist? Six hundred people have died?

A: I’ve begged, I’ve pleaded, I’ve got a whole file of letters I’ve written asking for access to their planes. And attached to each letter is the reply – a big NO. Well, it’s the same as – see, I can come round to your house and ask to see your lawn mower. And you’re quite likely to tell me to get lost. You don’t have to show me your lawn mower if you don’t want to.

Q: But my lawn mower doesn’t kill people. Your aircraft do, it seems.

A: Our aircraft, if they’re looked after properly, are perfectly safe. We haven’t managed to get access to any of the South American airline’s planes, but we have checked every single Donald-McEwan 7-11 of every reputable airline running them. And we found… nothing. Absolutely nothing. Tells you something about the reliability of those aircraft. Let me ask you something – do you have a car?

Q: Yes.

A: Okay, you bought it new?

Q: Yes, two years ago.

A: And you get it serviced regularly, I bet. But after three, five years or something, you’ll sell it. And the buyer may not look after it so well. He may just keep it a year or so and sell it to someone else. This bloke’s only paid a few hundred for it, so he’ll do the minimum he can to keep it running. In the same way, a reputable airline will make sure its aircraft are in tip-top condition. Ten years down the line, the operators aren’t as likely to take as much care. And if your car has a problem you coast to the side of the road and call for help. But if a badly maintained aircraft has a problem it can’t do that.

Q: So are you saying that all four aircraft were badly maintained? Sounds rather like blaming someone else for your own mistakes.

A: I’m not blaming anyone. I’ll let the facts speak for themselves. Take just one example – the main impeller assembly in a 7-11 engine should be replaced after sixteen thousand hours. That’s about four years flying. The aircraft that went missing were between ten and twelve years old. They should have had a new set of impellers at least twice by now. Right, here’s the order book (SHOWS). Total number of impeller assemblies ordered in the last five years by the operating airlines – exactly nil. Other parts ordered for that model. Same total: none at all.

Q: But you can’t be certain they’re all flying with worn-out parts.

A: Absolutely. But I know they’re not using new parts. They could be using second-hand parts or cheap copies from some Eastern block country – I don’t know. What I am sure of is that every – repeat, every – 7-11 that’s operated by a major airline gets regular checks and first quality replacement parts fitted at regular intervals. And each one of those aircraft has a hundred percent safety record. One hundred percent.

Q: So why is it your aircraft are crashing? No other make?

A: Well, I suppose you could say Donald-McEwan aeroplanes are too reliable. They last and last. So second-line operators, as they’re known, snap them up when they come on the market. In Europe seventy percent of the aircraft flying short hops use Donald-McEwan 7-11s. And some of them are eighteen, twenty years old. And they’re still one hundred percent safe. That’s how good they are.

Q: You could, of course, save lives by recommending grounding of all similar aeroplanes. Of course, to do so would send a negative signal to your shareholders. Is this simply a financial decision to let the aircraft go on flying?

A: I want to ground those aircraft. I recommend grounding of ALL aircraft of ANY make that aren’t serviced to the manufacturer’s standards. But this is a foreign country. I have no authority there. What I can do is tell people what’s going on. And thank you for giving me the chance to do that here. As for grounding, I’ve asked the air transport safety board to use whatever pressure it can bring to bear on these operators. Ask them to let us inspect the aircraft.

Q: So you’re just washing your hands of the matter?

A: I’m an engineer, not a dictator. I do what I can best. And what I do best is make safe aircraft and make aircraft safe. Donald-McEwan has got a team of engineers and tons of spare parts ready to go. They can be in South America bringing the planes up to scratch within 24 hours of getting permission.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s going to fly coast to coast to a daughter’s wedding or to see an aged grandmother, and sees he’s scheduled to fly on a 7-11?

A: I’d say he’s going to have a great trip. And a safe one. Our safety record for aircraft that are regularly serviced is one hundred percent perfect. One hundred percent. Our 7-11 is saving lives – it takes doctors into the African bush, it takes drugs to malaria victims in India, it ferries tons of food into Ethiopia every day. Thousands of lives saved. Hey, I came here today in a 7-11 and I’m going home in one. The Donald-McEwan 7-11 is a fine aeroplane.

Game, set and match to Donald-McEwan!

PREPARATION is the name of the game.


Of course, not all interviews are challenging. Though the challenging ones are nearly all interesting for the viewer, listener or reader. Good news interviews can lack any form of grip for the customer. So different kinds of interview need different treatment.