Nail your next TV interview: Part 1

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TV interviews tend to put me in mind of dogs chasing cars. It seems like everyone wants to go on TV to talk about their new company, book, product, etc. But when, after so much pitching and pleading, they're finally able to line up that first TV interview, not unlike the dog that *catches* the car for the first time, few people actually know what to do next in order to make the most of this valuable opportunity.

You could argue that print, radio and TV interviews are all equally important. But there's something about TV that ups the ante. An appearance on television carries with it the promise of increased profile, enhanced brand name recognition and, sure, a certain level of prestige. At the same time, however, TV also means you're biting off more in the 'risk' department. Think about it. In the YouTube era, a gaffe during your TV interview doesn't simply die a natural death like it did in the good ol' days when the 6 o'clock newscast ended. It's there for all of your friends, co-workers, clients, prospective employers -- and yes, your great, great grandchildren -- to see when they search your name for all of eternity. 

Great TV spokespeople aren't born. They're made. And the main ingredients are preparation and practice. The good news is that with some coaching and practice beforehand, you can significantly increase your confidence level and improve your performance when the microphone is shoved in your face and the red light comes on. 

To prepare properly for a TV interview, you have to understand what to do in the three distinct phases of a TV interview 'cycle': before the interview, during the interview and after the interview. I'll be addressing each of these parts of the TV interview cycle in a separate post. So without further ado, here's part one:

Part 1: How to prepare before your TV interview

Have a story to tell: This is number one on the list for a reason. The most important element of your TV interview isn't how your hair looks or that piece of spinach between your teeth (more on that later). The most important element is your story. You're being invited to appear as a representative of your company or a subject matter expert on a topic in the news. You need to invest some time to craft your story in three to five strong, succinct and fact-filled messages. My tool of choice for writing interview messages is the trusty index card.

Don't make the mistake of waffling, sitting on the fence or not having an opinion or a story to tell. If this is coverage you want, you risk ending up being left out of the story. And if this is coverage that you don't necessarily want (e.g. about an issue or a crisis), you risk looking like a weasel. It takes time to distill a complex, fluid story into three to five messages. So spend the majority of your prep time on your content. And if you have a PR or communications team to assist, all the better.


Do your homework: Before the interview, either you or your communications team should do a bit of basic research to help better understand what you're getting into. Google the reporter's work on this topic in the recent past. Do they treat their interview subjects fairly? Do they appear to have an axe to grind? Do they give spokespeople a hard time?  Do you have any recent research or findings that can inform your answers? Statistics? Percentages? Interesting trends or any other kinds of proof points to support your story? This can be time well-spent in preparing for your TV interview. 

TV is a visual medium. Yet spokespeople are often so wrapped up in how they're going to look on camera that they ignore other opportunities to tell their stories with visuals. If you're in the manufacturing business, is there a production line that would help show how busy your company is? Is there a great vantage point where the crew can get a good shot of your building, product, etc? If it's a technology story, can we provide them with a demo product to feature in their piece? Don't be afraid to bring up these ideas to the reporter if they don't ask first.

A word of caution, however: it's never a good idea to let a TV crew roam throughout your offices on their own. Be sure they're escorted by a seasoned member of the team and that everyone is in 'interview' mode at all times.

Where to look:  It's easy to spot a rookie spokesperson. They're the one staring right into the camera. Or shifting their gaze back and forth between the reporter and the camera. When you're watching at home, it can look unsettling to say the least. And if I'm freaked out by how you're staring into the lens, I'm not paying attention to your story.

A good rule of thumb is to pretend the camera isn't even there and maintain good eye contact with the reporter. The camera person is typically very close to the reporter and the camera is right beside the reporter's head. Watch anyone being interviewed on TV and you'll see them looking just a bit to the right or left of the lens.

If you're on an interview panel, however, the guideline is to follow the dialogue with your eyes. If you're speaking with the reporter, maintain eye contact with them. If another panel member is talking, look their way. And be conscious of your facial expressions and body language while others are speaking. And no, when someone else is talking, that's not a great time to check your BlackBerry.

The only time you should look directly into the camera is when you're being interviewed via satellite. Typically, you'll be in a small room with a camera and with an earpiece in your ear to hear the host. In this format, it's okay to look directly into the lens.

Location, location, location: Where the interview takes place can be as important as what you say during the interview. Don't simply let the reporter dictate where the interview will take place. Location selection is an art form unto itself and deserves a more detailed article to examine its nuances. But basically, there are two main considerations when choosing on the location for your TV interview. The first has to do with visuals. What backdrop tells the best story? Is it the outside of your building? In front of your booth at a trade show? Beside a stream to talk about water safety? By a busy highway to talk about driver safety? Viewers can pick up a lot of information from non verbal cues including location. While the reporter might have a specific idea in mind, this is something that you should consider in advance rather than just agreeing to whatever they suggest.

The other consideration when it comes to location relates to issues management. If you're talking about the facility you just shut down and the employees you've laid off, the reporter is going to want to do the interview at the facility. Of course they do. That's where all the action is. They have a great chance of getting some sad or angry employees on camera. It's within your rights, however, to ask to have the interview conducted at your office building on the other side of town. It's one more way you can help manage the media relations outcome. You can't stop the TV crew from travelling to your facility in search of employees. But by the same token, you don't need to serve those employees up on a platter.

Your appearance: Some media trainers and PR folks spend way too much time obsessing about what to wear during a TV interview. If you're going on Entertainment Tonight, I see the value in that. But I guess I'm more of a content guy. As long as your wardrobe isn't distracting or inconsistent with your story or your company's message, you should be okay. 

Having said all that, dress professionally. Dark, solid colours tend to work best on TV. Tight patterns (e.g. stripes, checks) tend to appear to 'dance around' on TV and can be distracting. Similarly, a bright white shirt might look great in the boardroom but it can be distracting on TV. 

In terms of accessories, try to avoid clunky, distracting earrings, etc. If you're doing a story about battling against poverty, that five-pound gold Rolex might look a bit puzzling when you scratch your ear.

If you need to check you hair, teeth, etc. prior to the interview and you don't have access to a mirror, use your smartphone camera. If you're appearing in studio, don't be surprised when they put a bit of TV makeup on you.

Practice: Your fifth interview will be better than your third one. And your third one will be better than your first one. So why not practice a few times in the office before the real thing? If you have someone who does media training for your company, see if they'll come over for a quick practice interview or two and provide you with some pointers and an analysis of your performance. To save time, they can even conduct the interview over Skype or Facetime, etc. It's a great way to practice if you have the time. Failing that, get a colleague or even a spouse, friend of one of your kids to videotape you in a practice interview or two. Play it back and adjust your performance accordingly. 

Have an ambush strategy ready: Getting ready for a scheduled TV interview is stressful enough. Being ambushed by a TV crew is a whole other thing. While you can never predict when you might be ambushed by a TV crew, you can adopt an approach for dealing with these situations in advance. Ideally, you want to create a break to buy yourself some time before you sit down and speak with the reporters. 

What you don't want to do is: walk/run away, put your hand in front of the camera, put your coat over your head, jump into your car and drive away. All of these things make for great TV and they make the viewer think that you're guilty of something. Also, don't try to fend off the reporter with a chocolate chip cookie. That's can be a real career killer too.

When you're caught off guard by a TV reporter or crew, here's what to do. Be polite. Be courteous. Tell them that you understand the issue is an important one and that your organization does want to comment on it. But explain to them that you were unaware they were coming, there's something important you need to take care of right now (i.e. getting ready for your interview) and that unfortunately you aren't in a position to speak to them right this second. Negotiate a mutually convenient time for an interview - maybe later that day. Give them the card/number of your communications director and ask them to call them and set it up. You don't want to come off looking evasive. Even if they air that exchange I've just described on TV, the spokesperson ends up looking like a polite, reasonable person while the reporter comes off looking like a bit of a bully. Having said all of this, however, the fact that reporters feel the need to ambush you means something isn't working in your media relations approach. It's time to examine the way you're dealing with the media to avoid these types of situations. Open, forthcoming companies don't typically get ambushed.

Look behind you: Okay. It's go time. Your TV interview is just about to begin. The reporter is there. The camera light is on. They've asked you to stand in a certain spot. They're doing a sound check and checking their white balance. Your mind is racing, trying to remember your talking points. What you're probably not thinking about is what's behind you. Your backdrop can tell a story all by itself. And a crafty or creative reporter can have yours telling a story that you won't necessarily like when you see it on the news. So before the interview begins, take a quick look behind you to make sure you're okay with the scenery. Perhaps the most infamous example of a terrible backdrop is Sarah Palin's famous turkey pardoning incident from a few years back. Palin, who insisted she didn't need any PR handlers, conducted a TV interview while live turkeys were being slaughtered right behind her. The incident ended up making the evening news, not to mention David Letterman's Top Ten List. I've watched this clip more than 50 times and I can't tell you what she's talking about because I can't stop staring at the turkeys behind her (warning: images may be disturbing to some).

These tips should help you lay the foundations for more positive media relations outcomes in your next TV interview. In the next post, we'll talk about what to do when the red light on the camera comes on and your interview begins.