Interview “code words” — and what they really mean

Over the course of my career, I’ve done thousands of interviews. I’ve talked to people who have never been interviewed for a story to folks who spend many of their days talking to the media.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a handful of questions and requests again and again (and again) during these interviews. If you’ve been doing interviews, you’ve probably heard them, too.

At first, I responded only to what they actually said.

But over time, I realized that there is often a request behind the question or the statement. And I needed to answer that question — the one that they didn’t even really ask — before I could get the best possible interview.

Today, I want to share three of those coded requests.

I’ll share what people are really asking about when they say these things. And I’ll also share how to respond to interviewees in ways that give them not just the answer to what they actually said out loud, but also to the hidden request.

I hope this is helpful as you do interviews for your own projects.

Code words: “Can you send me the questions in advance?”

What they’re really asking: I’m feeling a little nervous about this interview. Can you reassure me that I won’t feel blindsided or unprepared for this conversation?

The background: I know a lot of folks — especially those who come from traditional journalism backgrounds — who bristle at the idea of offering questions to sources in advance. They don’t want to get overly rehearsed, PR-engineered responses. (It’s also a pain to have to come up with questions days in advance if you haven’t completed the research for the topic.)

But alumni magazines aren’t traditional journalism. And for the most part, you want people to feel prepared and comfortable going into an interview.

How to respond: “Yes, I’m happy to send a few questions in advance to get us started. I’ll make sure you have them by [date, time]. I should also add that you’ll have a chance to review the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: First, when you agree to their request, that will set them at ease. (Notice that in my response, I didn’t say that I’d provide a full list of questions — just a starting point!)

Next, when you create a deadline for myself and the interviewee and then meet it, you build additional trust before the interview has even started. When you share the process — that they’ll have a chance to review the copy before publication — they can let their guard down and not worry that a misstatement will make it into print.

This response — and the work that goes into it — will give your interviewees the confidence they need to be open and honest with you, because you have signaled that you will not let them fail.

I’ll add one more thing here: many people come very prepared to these interviews. Often, when I ask my final question of the interview — “Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn’t discuss?” — they will often refer to their notes. Occasionally, they will provide the best story or quote of the entire interview from their prepared notes! Everyone, including the reader, can benefit from this approach.

Code words: “Make me sound smart!”

What they’re really saying: I’m a little anxious about being quoted verbatim; I’d rather see a polished quote that captures my ideas accurately, rather than an exact one that makes me sound inarticulate.

The background: In your work, you’re likely talking to lots of folks who don’t consider themselves exceptional interviewers or haven’t spoken extensively about the topic you’re interviewing them about. They may understand that interviewees aren’t typically granted access to pre-publication drafts. They want to signal that it’s important they’re a bit flexible on their quotes as long as the larger ideas they’re trying to convey are correct.

How to respond: “I’m sure you’ll be great! If it helps to understand the process, you’ll have a chance to review all of your quotes before publication, which I expect will happen [WHEN]. It’s important to us that everyone is happy with the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: I like to give everyone a little nudge of encouragement before I get down to brass tacks: we want this story to succeed, and we’ll give them a bit of control over their words.

Even if I don’t promise that they can change their quotes (sometimes this makes sense, sometimes not!), they know that we’re all aiming at the same thing: a story that everybody’s happy with. This reassurance can help them be a bit more open and vulnerable in the interview than they might be otherwise.

Code words: “I’d be happy to take a look at this after you’ve written it.”

What they’re really saying: I’m not sure I trust that this story will be accurate, but I want to be diplomatic about my request. I need to know how carefully I need to speak during this interview. (A more direct version of this concern is “Will I have a chance to see this before it’s published?”)

The background: While anyone can ask a version of this question, you’ll probably hear it most often when you’re working with people who have expertise in technical areas (hard sciences, tech, etc.).

Why? They’ve probably been burned in the past. They may have been been misquoted or misinterpreted in some way. They may be wary, but they also know that they may not have much control over the process.

How to respond: “Oh, I’m so happy you brought this up. Let me share the process with you: after we talk, I’ll write up a draft, and my editor will take a crack at it. Once my editor has taken a look, you’ll also have a chance to review it for accuracy and to make sure your quotes are conveying what you intended. Because this is an alumni publication, it’s very important to us that everyone is happy with the finished story.”

Why it works: A clear explanation of a process can assure interviewees that you know what you’re doing — and that they will get a chance to weigh in on the story at the right time. Your response can help emphasize that everyone’s on the same page.