Monday, June 16, 2008

can you pass the Russert test?

While we here in Washington try to wrap our heads around a town without the late Tim Russert, savvy interviewees out there will be vowing to live up to what became known as "the Russert test," the ability to survive his grilling interviews. Russert's techniques, now widely copied, centered on two things dear to our hearts here at don't get caught: preparation for interviews (they say no one prepared more than he) and turning the interviewee's own talking points into the questions, often before the speaker could blurt own his or her own points. His techniques prompted many--including President Bush--to assign a staffer to nothing but preparation for Russert interviews. And other leaders can look back on strong responses to Russert questions they may now regret (he famously tried to get Senator Hillary Clinton to say she might one day run for president, and she famously denied it categorically--even after he gave her options for answering the question another way).

What can you learn from the Russert test for your next interview?
  • Take those well-crafted messages you've been practicing and turn them into pointed questions. Russert made this into an art form, and it's perhaps the most-copied of his techniques. You may need someone to do this for you--someone with distance from your interview or topic.
  • Practice answering the same question, recast in different ways, over and over. When Russert wanted to smoke out an answer, he asked it again and again, often with minor changes. Can you stand up to that level of questioning? This takes role-playing with a trusted colleague for highest effectiveness.
  • Anticipate questions--those you want, expect and fear. We always advise that would-be interviewees spend time anticipating these questions -- and with Russert, you'd never walk on the set without having an answer for all of them.
  • Know what else is in the news. Even stories without an apparent link to your point may be fodder for an interview question. Russert, a former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, cut his eye teeth in a Senate office where he was expected to know all of the day's coverage by dawn--in a pre-Web age, no less. Take the time to anticipate angles that might lead into your interview, in ways you might not expect. (For example, if there's an issue in your company's past with similarities to a scandal, campaign or problem today, you can count on a question about your perspective.)
Want more practice? Get online and watch past "Meet the Press" shows. Observe the lines of questioning, and consider how you'd answer the question. You'll find a list of each show's guests and transcripts here; go to MSNBC's video page and scroll down to find "Meet" videos here.

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