As human beings, most of us are fortunate enough to possess a finely-tuned survival instinct, honed by millions of years of evolution. You might think these awesome skills are wasted in a world without dinosaurs and sabre-toothed tigers. On the contrary. Even in the corporate world, I see the 'fight or flight' response kick in when we're putting participants through their paces for simulated interviews during our media training sessions. It's one of the few situations in which you'll see seasoned executives sweat profusely, clutch the boardroom table with white knuckles and stare longingly at the window as if they were contemplating making a run for it (for the record, I actually had one participant bolt during an interview a few years ago...but more than 1,000 others have stuck it out over the years).
Preparing to be be interviewed by the media is one of those activities in which you see peoples' professional survival instincts kick in. The smart ones understand that a media interview is kind of a big deal. They get the fact that in the age of Google and YouTube, this stuff never goes away. That their bosses, shareholders and great grandchildren will be seeing this stuff. And that their ability to conduct effective interviews (or their lack thereof) can have a significant impact on their career aspirations and, over time, even their income level.
One of the counter-intuitive things I've noticed is that it's the participants who are actually good at media interviews who schedule refresher sessions every few years. They realize they have a knack for it but that, much like martial arts, for example, there are many levels of expertise and sophistication and that they want to get better at it.
This list below is not for those people. On that note, here are 11 ways to totally *$#@ up your next media interview:
1. Wing it
Preparation is highly overrated. Why waste 30 minutes or so getting ready for your interview when you could be doing something productive, like playing Words with Friends on your smartphone or creeping your ex on Facebook? Why would you need to prepare? You live and breathe this stuff! You're like the Yoda of whatever it is that you do.
Don't bother finding out the focus of the story or anticipating questions. Don't waste your time Googling the reporter to see their recent work on the topic. And don't you even think about connecting with that nice person in your Communications department. They'll just mess things up.
No...what you need to do is pick up the phone and let 'er rip.
Everything will turn out juussst fiiiine.
2. Assume that because you're a decent presenter, you'll be awesome at this
You're a networking machine who lights up the convention centre with your charisma. You're Dale Carnegie reincarnated (um...he's dead, right?). And those silver-tongued oratory skills of yours have not gone unnoticed. You're hot stuff behind the podium. In fact, people are still talking about that 123-slide presentation you gave on 'Protozoa versus Algae' in Reno last fall. And the way you handled the Q&A? Forget about it!!
So what's this they're asking you to do? An interview with the local TV station? Giddyup! You've got mad skillz, yo! You're 'The Natural'. Just open your mouth and let the magic seep out. Because delivering a PowerPoint deck and conducting a media interview are the exact same thing. Right?
3. Repeat a lot of the reporter's language in your answers
Remember that VHS tape you bought in the mid-1990s where Tony Robbins told you that you could make more friends and increase sales by mirroring the other person's behaviour and body language? And by repeating some of their own words in your answers? Well, be sure to do a lot of that in your interview. That will totally make the reporter like you. And then, they'll probably write a super positive piece about how awesome your company is.
After all, why would anyone want to use their own original key messages in a media interview when they could just let the reporter put controversial and potentially damaging words in their mouth? What could go wrong?
Reporter: "Do you think it's fair to say that your company's contaminated yogurt is killing people?"
You: "Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that our contaminated yogurt is killing people..."
Oh, right. That.
4. Be in 'customer service' mode
Kill the reporter with kindness. Be helpful. When they try to ask you questions that might be inappropriate for you to answer, don't be difficult by bridging back to your message or adjusting course. Just answer their questions, no matter how off-base or inflammatory they might be. After all, this isn't about your organization having a right to tell its story.
It's about making the journalist like you.
5. Lose your cool
If they ask a question you don't like, don't think twice about yelling or berating the reporter. That will show them you can't be pushed around. And if they're videotaping your outburst, all the better! You can let the whole world see what a 'take charge' kind of leader you are and that no one is going to back you into a corner. For some extra pizzazz, hang up or storm out of the interview. If you're doing the interview outside, run away, jump into your car and screech away. Put your sweater over your head. Use your imagination! There's really no wrong answer here.
6. Tell the journalist "there's really no story here"
You know what reporters really like? They like to be told when there's really no story at your company and that it would probably make sense for them to just, you know, move along. It's so thoughtful when you want to save their precious time. Like not wanting to burden them with the silly details about those 50 barrels of toxic chemicals your company 'accidentally' spilled into the lake last spring. It's not like reporters are curious or tenacious people. Chances are when you tell them how much of a non-story it is, they'll say 'thank you' and be on their way.
7. Ramble on for 20 to 30 minutes
Try to make your media interview last as long as humanly possible. Amaze the reporter with how much you know. Use long, rambling answers. If possible, avoid any type of verbal punctuation. When they try to wrap up the interview, remember some awesome new stuff to tell them to make the interview longer. Make it as much like a conversation with one of your friends as possible. Why give them just one or two focused messages when you could give them 12 pages worth of content to choose from?
8. Use a sh*tload of jargon, acronyms and buzzwords
And while you're dazzling them with the depths of your knowledge, be sure to throw in a bunch of acronyms, corporate buzzwords, industry lingo and other things they probably haven't heard of before. Not only will it make you seem wicked smart, it will also give you that air of aloofness that totally scores points with reporters and readers/viewers/listeners alike (think Gary Bettman).
9. Talk about the competition as much as possible
Whenever possible, be sure to bring your competitors into the interview. Even if the reporter doesn't ask about them, find a way to talk about your biggest competitors and why they're keeping you up at night or how their product is actually better than yours.
What? It's not as if your controversial comments about your competitors will knock your other key messages about your actual company, product or service out of the story or anything. Or get your boss totally annoyed with you. Or give your competitors a chance to post a mash-up of your interview on YouTube and play it at their office Christmas party and laugh at you as their sales skyrocket. Why would any of those things happen?
10. Come up with your messages as you go
This tip really works well when used with #1 (Wing it). You'll find a lot of people on the Internet who say you should come up with a list of key messages that you want to convey in your interview.
Blah, blah, blah.
You know that you do your best thinking on your feet. You're like Russell Crowe's character in Gladiator. Put you in a ring with tigers and shiny-masked dudes with giant swords and those chariots with razor wheel thingies and you will prevail. Why ruin such a valuable opportunity with something as boring as a script?
One word, baby: Improv!
11. Invite the reporter out to lunch (or better yet, drinks!)
This tip totally works best when used with #7 (Ramble on for 20 to 30 minutes). The reporter will probably suggest doing the interview by phone. What a lost opportunity! Invite them out to lunch! Why constrain yourself to just five minutes when you can have a long, rambling, Virginia Woolf-style stream-of-consciousness, hour-and-a-half long, free-range chat? Nothing should be off limits in terms of subject matter. Politics. Religion. Gay marriage. The relative merits of the term 'legitimate rape'. And if you can add alcohol, all the better.
Do you have any other tips we haven't thought of for f___ing up your next media interview?
If, for some reason, you don't want to f___ up your upcoming media interview, here's a good place to start...