BLUF: When it comes to giving interviews, you can’t practice enough.
In the course of my duties, I provide on-camera technique training to hazard response professionals several times a year. When I ask about their prior media experiences, the most common complaint is, “The media take my words out of context.” (Fair enough, more on that in a moment.) Others are concerned about blanking out in front of the camera and forgetting what they were talking about, or how they’ll look or sound on camera.
By the way, the voice you hear when you speak isn’t the same as what your audience hears. Sound reaches your inner ear by way of two separate paths. When you speak, sound energy spreads the air around you and reaches your cochlea through your external ear via air conduction. The mechanical properties of your skull enhance those deeper, lower-frequency vibrations. When you hear a recording of yourself speaking, the bone-conducted pathway of your normal voice is eliminated, leaving only the air-conducted components in unfamiliar isolation. Science!
Back to it: The Bad Thing happened. You and your team are doing your best to stay ahead of the information situation but the phone calls are pouring in and some of the callers are asking for on-camera interviews. It could be for an afternoon segment 30 minutes from now, a quick piece for the evening news or – drum roll – a more strategic arena; bright and early on a national morning talk show.
Whatever the demand, you’ve got to be ready. Here are some basic techniques designed to help keep you (and, therefore, your organization) from looking like a hot mess while millions of people are making up their minds about you from the comfortable end of the camera.
What can you do to prepare for an interview? That’s a great question! Let’s start with the groundwork. In the lull between incidents, I recommend scheduling on-camera training days for your organization. Give your team – or better yet, your leadership – a realistic, Day One disaster scenario and less than an hour to become familiar with the facts. Set up a video camera on a tripod and point an actual microphone at them. Role-play the part of a reporter and start by asking the most softball of questions. Put yourself in a reporter’s shoes. What would you want to know? There are at least 77 questions a reporter could ask about any single event. It’s highly unlikely you’d be able to answer them all, but anticipating even a handful will allow you to get ahead.
Make a list of the five hardest questions your company isn’t looking forward to answering and turn up the heat a little. Ask your interview subjects the same difficult questions in a variety of ways. When the interview is over, review the video with them one-on-one on a bigger screen and look for distracting body language or verbal tics, delayed or absent empathy messages, robotic or “autopilot” delivery, or poor projection. It’s valuable training to have under your collective belts. Most people, with a little coaching, and a lot of practice, are useable for interviews. (Most. Meaning: not all. Keep this in mind when you’re drawing up a list of subject matter experts for your organization.)
A complete response is an answer plus a message.
By the way, not all empathy messages are tragedy based. If all your company has done is impact morning traffic for local commuters, you can empathize that, too.
Now, let’s get into the details. A complete response is an answer plus a message, the message being the positive statements your organization wants to convey during the interview. Naturally (and hopefully), those messages will change depending upon the situation. As far as having your words taken out of context, that’s often the result of your message being buried by filler. Totally understandable, especially if you’re new to this. The lights are in your face, the camera reminds you of something from a Kafka novel and the microphone is RIGHT. THERE, listening to your every word. Suddenly, you’re not exactly sure what you should be saying so you say everything, hoping something sticks. That’s when (knowing them, and) staying on message is important. Short answers are generally the only thing the media has time for, so use your time wisely.
“Ums” and “ahs” are common. Verbal placeholders happen when our words are being scrutinized and we’re trying to sound competent or authoritative. Professional credibility is at stake. You don’t use nearly the same amount when you’re talking to friends and family about a topic you’re into. Enthusiasm goes a long way, so get to know your messages inside and out. But don’t just spew facts. A good interview is natural like a conversation – if it’s too rehearsed, it’ll feel fake or staged.
You’re the subject matter expert here, but the interviewer is doing a job, just like you.
There are different types of interview formats, the news brief or press conference being the most common. These are typically well-planned and managed, and you’ll likely have a handful of subject matter experts or third-party credibility sources at the lectern with you. That’ll help dissipate the heat a little, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare.
The greatest benefit to a one-on-one recorded interview is that you can re-answer a question if you’ve gotten your facts wrong or flubbed your delivery. Be gracious, but ask for a do-over. If you have to look down at your notes, don’t “drag your answer up” or read while you’re bringing your eyes back up. Look down, review the facts. Look up, deliver the facts. The interviewer is going to want a solid sound bite with eye contact, not the top of your head as you read your message. You’re the subject matter expert here, but the interviewer is doing a job, just like you. They don’t want flawed product and they’re likely to cut those drag shots. That’s probably another reason why some feel they’ve been taken out of context.
There are also different types of interviewers. It’s business as usual for most. Local reporters aren’t necessarily trying to trip you up. It may not feel like it, but being on-camera puts you in control of a great opportunity to get your message out. Not all interviewers use the same techniques, however. When it comes to the “rapid fire” types, the answer is simple: Select the question you want. Just pluck it out of the air and expound upon it for a moment before bridging back to your message.
Blocking and bridging are techniques that help you stay on message: “Before we continue, let me emphasize this… I’m glad you asked me that. What I can tell you is this… I wish I could tell you more about that, but what we do know is this… I don’t have that answer available right now, but what I can tell you is this… I think the most important thing here is this… That’s a great questions, but first I want to take a moment to highlight this…” CAUTION: Don’t throw those out there without practice and expect them to perform magic for you. Rehearse (read: practice) them until you sound natural.
Don’t speak for other organizations, don’t respond to articles you haven’t read or statements you haven’t heard in person, and definitely avoid answering hypothetical questions. That’s a great way to meet yourself climbing up a down staircase.
Should you find yourself faced with a “dart thrower” who interrupts or paraphrases what you’re saying, it’s vitally important that you not repeat those posed negatives. Again, stay on message.
Virtual conversations, telephone and radio interviews are pretty low-impact. You’re likely conducting them from a known environment and you’ve got notes to refer to. Again, don’t read from them verbatim. Work your messages into the conversation. Any time there’s a camera involved, take a few minutes to look over the backdrop for distractions and double check your own appearance.
If at all possible, drink some cold water immediately before the interview. Not coffee, not an energy drink – cold water. Unless you’re an experienced professional, the sight of that camera lens will make your mouth drier than an East German comedian and you’ll generate a lot of unwanted smacks and pops when you speak, all of which are perfectly audible to the microphone and distracting to your audience.
Odds are you’ll be looking at the interviewer, not the camera. If you’re going to be seated, sit up straight and cross your legs. If you’re standing, place one foot slightly ahead of the other to keep from rocking back and forth. Keep your hands out of pockets, and maybe hold your notes down at your side.
Know your audience. That’s a lectern knocker, people. If you’re doing a morning show, be lighthearted and conversational – but stay professional. For more serious topics, convey a knowledgeable, more authoritative demeanor. Know the general topics to be covered and prepare three or four main talking points for each.