Image for Know What to Say and When to Shut Up in Interviews

In an interview, it isn’t enough to know what to say. You also need to know what not say and when to shut up. Bernie Sanders provided a reminder of this interview maxim on his appearance over the weekend on 60 Minutes.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

As a politician, Sanders is known for speaking his mind. He doesn’t mince words. That’s part of his political brand. However, candor shouldn’t be an excuse for carelessness.

The Democratic presidential frontrunner knew Anderson Cooper would ask a question about a 1985 comment Sanders made praising Castro for giving Cuban children educational opportunities and health care. Regardless of the accuracy of his earlier comment or his current beliefs, Sanders is a veteran politician who should have known the question was bait. And Sanders gobbled it up like a starving mouse.

The blowback has been huge. More important, an entire news cycle has focused on Sanders’ ill-timed Castro comment, drowning out any other message he may have intended to deliver through his high-profile 60 Minutes interview.

Wasted opportunity and avoidable controversy is the price that undisciplined interviewees incur.

Sanders could have answered Cooper’s question in a less provocative way than essentially restating his previous controversial comment. He could have stopped after saying, “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba.” Or he could have bridged to another point such as, “As president of the United States, the question I will face is how are we going to deal with a post-Castro Cuba.” Neither of these responses would have blunted the question and not sparked much blowback. They are tepid enough that they may have been left on the cutting room floor.

In media training, we describe interviews as performances. Interviewees are actors with a part to play and a script to follow. They go on air with a message to deliver and a discipline to stay on message. They know what they need to say, what they don’t want to say and when to shut up.

Treating interviews as performances doesn’t mean ditching candor or dodging tough questions. A prepared interviewee expects tough questions, even trick questions, and has an answer in mind. Disciplined interviewees make news everyday by delivering their intended message with conviction and without equivocation.

Most TV interviews are brief, stand-up encounters. Reporters on deadline want “good air” – a short, usable quote that says something. The art of the interview is to craft a message that can be captured in 10 to 12 seconds, the length of the typical TV interview quote. Sit-down interviews for TV, digital or print publications may seem more relaxed, but the same rule applies – your message needs to be encapsulated in a 10-second comment or phrase.  

Discipline requires repeating your key message at least three times. The words can vary slightly, but not the meaning. Focusing on your message, not on answering questions that can take you far afield, is your job in an interview.

Cagey reporters will tempt you to veer from your prepared comments. That’s their job. Don’t succumb to the temptation, as Sanders did in his 60 Minutes interview. It’s near certain his objective in granting the interview wasn’t to entangle his 2020 presidential bid with a controversial comment he made in 1985. Now he can watch opposition TV commercials portraying him as a Castro apologist, which isn’t helpful in a state like Florida with a huge population of Cubans who fled their home island when Castro took over.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is saying what you need to say and stopping. It takes skill and practice to avoid the appearance of being evasive. It takes discipline to avoid adding superfluous information or, worse, information that leads the interview in a new, off-message direction. Remember, especially for TV interviews, reporters can’t quote what you don’t say. What you don’t say may be the best part of your interview.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.