Media interviews: How to avoid a Green Party-style debacle

There was a powerful instinct to cover your ears as Bennett, voice-wavering, words stumbling, umming and ahing, coughing, awkward silences, failed to answer basic questions over how her party planned to fund its new social housing policies.

Bennett, claiming she had a “huge cold”, was kindly asked whether “she should have gemmed up on the subject a bit more?”

It was, Bennett claimed later, “excruciating”. The press agreed slating it as a “car crash” interview and one of the worst ever with a party leader.

This is not a position any business person wants to find themselves in, especially if customers, shareholders or colleagues are scrutinising every detail.

It is difficult to escape the media nowadays with its gallery of TV, radio and internet channels and live broadcast media interviews are extremely challenging. There is no space to start again or to check quotes or to have a helpful PR person step in and smooth over anything “unclear”.

So how should business people best avoid Bennett’s ignominy?

According to Karen Ainley, chief executive of Mosaic Media Training and a former BBC reporter and newsreader, the old adage “Fail to prepare equals prepare to fail” holds true.

“The key to success is to ensure you fully plan what you want to say and how you say it before you go anywhere near a microphone,” she said. “Just ask any politician. Bennett’s ability was called into question after her disastrous interview.”

Here are six tips to succeed including curbing your inner “licky lizard”.

(1) Prepare

This involves both content and style and plenty of practice. Whether a reporter is responding to a proactive press release or whether you are being asked to react to an issue or crisis, start by asking a few basic questions so you understand what they are planning to report.

You should see it as an opportunity to tell your story – without having to pay for advertising to get your message across. And don’t say “no comment” or it will look like you have something to hide. There may be times you are limited to what you can say for legal reasons and a verbal statement may suffice. Always get your communications team involved if you have one; they will have the bigger picture and know what else is happening in the news or across your organisation. They can also do some of the legwork for you.

(2) Discovery 

Find out who the interviewer is, where they are from and their contact details. Establish their deadline and say you will get back to them, giving yourself time to prepare your key messages and second guess all likely questions.

Ainley commented: “If you ‘think’ you know something, there’s a racing certainty you don’t so avoid leading the interviewer in one direction if you don’t want to go there. Think of your key messages as stepping stones across the choppy waters of an interview. If you get stuck go back to your prepared messages and bridge to what you want to talk about.”

(3) Audience

Find out who the audience is and how the material will be used, when and where the interview will take place (on location, in a studio, at home or work) and whether it is over the phone or face-to-face.

(4) Timing

Check if the interviewer wants to do it live or pre/recorded; live is often better as you hear your introduction, you aren’t edited, the adrenalin will kick in and you are less likely to fluff.

Double check who else is being interviewed and find out what they are saying. It could change the direction of the interview. Most importantly, take control of the interview and give standalone sound bites to each answer.

Never be pushed into an interview without preparation. Even if you know a subject inside out, you don’t necessarily know the journalist’s angle.

You can scope an interview before you start. Explain what you want to get across and think about what you want to achieve.

(5) Tone 

It is never a good idea to be blatantly commercial; it will sound far more interesting and authentic if you come across as an expert addressing an issue or informing the audience about a new initiative. If you are promoting a product or service, be subtle. Otherwise it will sound like an advert.

(6) Medium 

With radio, paint a picture. Use your verbal communication skills to convey excitement, emotion, passion and enthusiasm. A television interview adds a completely different dimension. The audience can see you, which means you have to watch your body language.

“The audience can see if you are lying or uncomfortable. If you haven’t prepared your answers your eyes will dart around as you search for the information and you will look shifty. Unlike presentations where you use your hands to express yourself, it is really important in a TV interview that you don’t wave them around,” Ainley explained. “You need to avoid all distractions so the viewer concentrates on what you are saying. That means no dangly earrings or badges and no check jackets or shirts with thin stripes which cause the image to strobe. We see a lot of ‘licky lizard’ in our training courses where delegates lick their lips during an interview. Have some still water before you start.”

In summary prepare, plan, present yourself well and fully grasp the opportunity of your name and your business hitting the airwaves.

Image: Shutterstock

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