How to answer in interviews so that you actually get quoted


As a journalist it’s not uncommon that I conduct lengthy interviews with entrepreneurs and then ultimately leave everything they said out of the final article. I hate to do this, but sometimes it’s necessary. New entrepreneurs often don’t know how to talk to the press, and sometimes that means I end up with a whole interview of virtually unusable quotes.

But before we get into how that happens – and more importantly how to fix it – let’s talk about why it’s helpful for you, as an entrepreneur, to be quoted in a newspaper or website in the first place.

There are a few reasons. First, it connects your brand to a human. People like to support other people, and new enterprises can really capitalize on that because your basic story is really universal. Everybody, at some level, wants to strike out on their own and work for themselves. You’re actually doing it. People can relate to that, and they’ll root for you in your struggles, but only if they get some idea of who you are, rather than just hearing about your company. For that, it helps to be quoted. A generic profile of your company in the newspaper with no quotes is going to have no personality, and there’s no human story there for readers to connect with.

Being quotable is also useful for worming your way into other news stories to get extra exposure for your company. If I’m a journalist writing a story about your industry and I know from past experience that you give good quotes, I’m going to call you up to get a quote for this story, too. That’s good for me (I get a nice quote to round out my article) and it’s good for you  (you get a mention for yourself and your brand in an article you otherwise might not have appeared in).

What is a good quote?

Obviously, “good” is subjective, but there are a couple elements that most good quotes share:

First, they sound like something you might actually say in casual conversation, not something you’re reading off a Powerpoint. The more jargon, ad-speak, and buzzword nonsense you shove into a quote, the less interesting (and therefore usable) it is.

Second, they’re interesting in some way. Maybe you’re saying something unexpected, maybe you’re using a unique simile or metaphor, maybe you’re calling out a rival, or maybe you’re telling a joke. It could be any of those things, or any of a million others. The point is that it isn’t boring.

Bad quotes tend to lack both of those elements. Consider, for example, the stereotypical athlete’s answer in a post-game interview: “We went out there and played our best and worked as a team, and that’s how we got this important win today.” Is it accurate? Sure. But it’s boring as hell, because it’s *exactly* what we expect. That’s why you see those quotes broadcast during live TV interviews (which aren’t edited), but they rarely appear in the sports pages the next day.

Conversely, when a famous athlete says something we don’t expect – something like [“I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”] – it becomes major national news.

A case study

So how can you apply this to your business? Let’s take a look at a couple real-life examples. What follows are two excerpts from an interview I conducted recently. I’ve changed the brand name and some other details so that the interviewee cannot be identified, but otherwise, this is a completely real example.

Question: How long ago did you start? Tell me the story of COMPANY up to now.

Answer: We came up with the idea of COMPANY in early 2014. From then, we spent months to consolidate ideas and expand on possibilities. Soon, we began hardware layout, component selection, and app function development. We proceeded to our first prototype in November 2014, followed by beta testing version in December 2014.

This answer is almost certainly accurate, but good lord is it ever boring. I didn’t use any of this in my final article, because it completely lacks any kind of human feeling or connection, and it’s extremely generic and predictable. Every tech company starts with brainstorming ideas and then moves further into development, prototyping, and beta testing. The story this founder has told me here could apply to any one of thousands of companies.

So what should this person have said instead? A good place to start is specifics, being sure you cover the basic questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how). Who specifically came up with the idea? What made them think of it? When did this happen? Where were they working in the early days? Why did they think this area of business was worth pursuing? How did they overcome the obstacles of being an early startup? Et cetera.

As a startup founder, you need to be ready for this question in particular. You’re going to get some form of it a lot. That’s a good thing—it gives you a great opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack with an interesting origin story and put a human face on your company at the same time. Think about the early days of Apple: virtually everybody knows that the company started with two guys in a garage in California. That story sticks because it’s specific, human, and memorable. If Jobs and Wozniak had just explained Apple’s origins by saying, “well we started by consolidating our ideas and then expanding on possibilities before moving into prototyping…” nobody would ever remember that story.

To spice up your own origin story, include things like:

  • Where and when you worked in the early days: were you in a basement or garage? Were you staying up late at night to get things done?
  • What challenges you faced: did your early prototypes explode? Were you running low on finances? Did family or friends doubt you? Did your spouse worry about the risk you were taking?
  • Why you decided to do this: did something interesting, special, or moving happen in your life that gave you the idea for your company? Or that pushed you to finally take the plunge and start it?

Details like these can make the difference between getting a 300-word quoteless rundown of your company’s basic business model or a 1,000-word feature piece full of your quotes or a. (The former is fine, but the latter is what you should be gunning for).

Here’s another example from that same interview:

Question: Tell me about the COMPANY team right now.

Answer: The COMPANY team has 9 members at the moment. Our team is made up of software and hardware engineers, app developers and industrial designers. We have worked together on and off for six years, and we are passionate about gadgets that could bring value into people’s lives. Furthermore, we are all specialists in our own areas and we thought, why not get together to realize fresh, innovative ideas into people’s hands?

Again, this answer is terrible. Even when I specifically ask about the team, I get back a corporate-PR-style answer about the team’s professional background and then a jumble of buzzwords like “passionate,” “fresh,” “innovative,” “bringing value,” etc.

How can you avoid doing this? Here’s another tip: answer reporters’ questions as though you were talking to a friend. That doesn’t mean let your guard down and reveal secrets, of course, but it does mean communicate like a human, not like a briefing document. If you were describing your company’s team to a friend, what would you say? You might say something like:

Well, we’ve got this awesome guy who does our Java: crazy hair and covered in tats, but he could code his way out of prison if he ever got locked up. Then I brought in this awesome biz dev lady named Tina who’s been absolutely killing it—made five sales in her first day despite the fact that she was making cold calls from a public park bench because we didn’t have an office yet and my garage was being repainted. Then I’ve got a couple of interns from State College…

That’s a made-up answer, but you get the idea. When an investor asks about your team, they probably just want to know your professional backgrounds, but when a journalist asks about your team they’re also looking for characters and personality. That’s what readers – your potential customers and partners – are looking for when they read articles about your company, too. You want to get your message across, but at the core you have to be saying something relatable and human-sounding or it won’t work.

No robots allowed

The main takeaway here is this: be a human. In any interview, you’ve got a PR message that you’d like to get across, but your first goal should be to have a genuine conversation with another human being. Make a connection with the person who’s interviewing you. Speak to them like you would a friend. Engage them with interesting stories. That’s how you get your quotes in the paper… and how you ensure you get called again the next time that reporter’s writing about your industry.


About Author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is an editor at Tech in Asia, where he covers the Chinese technology industry. He lives in Maine with his wife and dog.