A TV journalist's tips for your first on-camera interview

                   Beatrice Politi

                  Beatrice Politi

Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Beatrice Politi, Managing Editor of Global Television, Toronto.

This usually goes down in one of two ways: 

  1. The moment is finally here. You've pitched, you've pressed, you've cajoled and there you have it. Your first TV interview. Congratulations! Or...
  2. The moment is finally here. You've been pressured, you've been cajoled and you've contemplated therapy to help you cope with the knots in your gut as you await your first TV interview. 

It's show time! And I don't say that facetiously. I've done thousands of interviews in my career as a reporter. We're talking construction workers to high-school principals to cancer patients to the Prime Minister. Some clearly have more media training and familiarity than others. So how do you pull it off with grace, dignity and benefit your cause or issue? A few simple steps:

Be Prepared

If there was ever a cliche, this is it. Being prepared is not about having rehearsed lines. Certainly, you should know the key messages you want to get across. But don't memorize them. They will sound canned.

Umms and Uhhhs

Take a moment to formulate your answer. Don't try to fill space with time-suckers like 'um' and 'ah'. In TV Land, they are the equivalent of sounding like a 12-year-old girl, like, you know?

Avoid Jargon

Speak like a normal person. Do not use acronyms. Do not speak as though you are speaking to your peers or colleagues. You are speaking to a broad audience who will likely have one chance to hear your message as they are making dinner or folding their laundry or, increasingly, these days, monitoring a second or third screen, including iPads and smartphones. Plain speech is increasingly important. Give your audience every chance possible to hear your message clearly the first time around.

Simple and Succinct

There may be a good deal of information you want to get across in an interview but make your points separately. It's tempting to try to provide as complete a response as possible with all the various nuances that might apply. I term it, not so affectionately, 'clausing'. People often speak in clauses. It's best in the context of a TV interview to keep sentence structure as uncomplicated as possible. Speak simply. Speak succinctly. Having said that, don't be too succinct. A 'yes' or a 'no' may be something we are looking for when it comes to an accountability story, say, while questioning a politician. But generally speaking, we are looking for some context. If you're unsure how to begin your answer, use the question in your answer. For example:

Reporter: "How will this new genetic discovery impact treatment?"

Interviewee: "This genetic discovery will impact treatment by giving us a new target so we can test current drugs against it and then also use it as a starting point to test new drugs."

Every Question is a New Question

Often, before an interview, you will have spoken to the reporter either on the phone or while the camera operator has been setting up their equipment. You will feel as though you've imparted a great deal of information to the reporter, which you likely have. However, you have not actually spoken to the viewer yet. One phrase that should be banned from most interviews is, "As I said earlier". Another is "again". You may find yourself wanting to use these phrases because you've already answered the reporter's question before the actual interview. But the viewer wasn't there during that exchange. To say, "...as I said earlier" will leave the viewer wondering what they might have missed. I've often reminded interview subjects about this. It also creates more work in the post-production side of things when those words need to be edited out. 

Expect Disruption

A TV crew is typically made up of a camera operator and a reporter. Sometimes, the crew will consist of only the camera operator. At times, there may be a third person - a producer, intern, sound technician, camera assistant. Although larger crews tend to be rare these days given shrinking resources in the TV broadcast sector. The camera may be large, it may be small. Larger cameras tend to intimidate by virtue of their size, but in the vast majority of interviews, you won't be looking into the lens. You will be making eye contact with the reporter. If you're unsure, feel free to ask. It's a question we field daily.

Often, camera operators travel light - a camera, a microphone and a tripod. But there are times when they might roll into your home or place of work with the equivalent of a large suitcase worth of equipment. 

Expect that furniture may need to be moved around or lights set up in order to give you the best lighting and background. I've helped move couches to be able to get the best shot. Know where your outlets are. Items including framed photographs or books may be moved into the shot or out of the shot. If there is something you don't want in the background, say so. In my experience, camera operators and reporters are sensitive to this and will often ask if it's okay to have that photo or that shelf in the background.

We need time to 'set up' and 'take down'. This could take as little as a minute or as many as 10-15 minutes on either end of the interview. Documentary programs typically take much longer for setup. 

We may not like the area you've selected for the interview. Often, we are guided to boardrooms. While they are not terrible spaces, they are also very sterile and don't provide a soft or contextual background for whatever is is we are interviewing you about. If possible, have a couple of options.

Your interview may be interrupted by any manner of things. For example, the sound of a plane or a siren wailing can muddy your audio. I've often waited for an airplane to fly past or the siren to disappear and re-ask the question. That background sound will detract from what you're saying.

What to Wear

As much as you might love that houndstooth blazer or that pin-striped shirt, leave them in the closet. Tight patterns or stripes tend to 'strobe' on television, making your torso look like it's floating along the waves of the ocean. It can be distracting. All white and all black are also poor choices. They are essentially the absence of colour. That doesn't mean neon green is a good choice either. Some colour is a good idea. Lapels or collars are also good, as they give us something to pin or hook the lavalier microphone on to. But if you're wearing a softer blouse or turtleneck, we can make do.

Nerves Shining Through

It can be nerve-wracking to find yourself in front of a camera lens, especially if you're not accustomed to public speaking. I've seen all manner of things. Sweat beads up on upper lips and foreheads. This shows on camera and can give an unfavourable impression of the interviewee. I have stopped many interviews and sourced tissue to have the person wipe the moisture away. 

Others I have interviewed, anxious to get their message across perfectly, have literally stopped and started themselves multiple times to get the answer just right. It went something like this:

Me: "How will this new genetic discovery impact treatment?"

Interviewee: "Well, um. It's going to make, it's going to be, well, it's a big deal. Can I start again? Okay. The genetic discovery took many years and we're hoping to find more genes...wait...one more time. The genetic discovery is everything, well, it is in this lab. Can we stop? Give me a minute. The genetic discovery gives us a new target so we can test the current drugs against it and then also use it as a starting point to test new drugs."

Mission accomplished, but in a very circuitous way. It's not only important to provide a good clip, but also a 'clean' clip, meaning one that doesn't need to be edited later in the edit suite.

Know What Will Make it to Air

I made it a habit when interviewing to use this as my last question: "Is there anything else you would like to add?" Sometimes this approach led to valuable information. Sometimes, it was a repetition of important key points in a fluid manner. But sometimes, it led to long answers or commentaries that would never make it to air. There are some things which, in the context of the vast majority of news stories, will not make it to air. Using this time to thank volunteers or staff or the sponsors of the study or outline a toll-free number are things which won't make it, unless the thrust of the story is a feature on volunteering or focused on a telethon.

The great irony of television interviews is that a great deal of work and preparation can go into them for all parties. Both the interviewee and the reporter need to be prepared. The camera operator needs to get the shot and the lighting right. You may provide several great answers or clips and then find that the story that makes it to air included only one clip and it was about 10 seconds long. Most often, this is not a reflection on you. Television is a fickle medium. It's a deadline-based medium. It is one that craves the simple, straightforward and, often, the attention-grabbing clips. Television reporters have between one and two minutes to tell often complex stories with several voices. Reporters are doing this while fighting deadlines, sourcing interviews and verifying information. They are essentially becoming experts on whatever their story is about in a short period of time and endeavouring to tell a complete story that keeps viewers interested and gives them valuable information.

And please, please, PLEASE avoid the temptation to utter any of the following one-liners:

"I'm ready for my close-up."

"Did you bring along makeup and hair?"

"This is my good side."

Ultimately, the best interviewees are those who speak clearly, succinctly and avoid jargon. Know what you want to say and find a way to say it which can easily be understood by the audience.


Beatrice Politi is Managing Editor of Global Television, Toronto. Before her recent promotion, she worked as a television reporter for 14 years at three different Canadian broadcasters. She served as Global Television's health reporter for nearly seven years and has received numerous awards for her reporting. Follow Beatrice on Twitter at @bpolitiglobal