Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
Understand that you’re going to be nervous during media interviews.
Extensive practice (and the confidence that comes with it) is your best defense.
Holding my breath and counting to ten before I slowly exhale seven or eight times immediately before the interview works wonders.
Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results.
I use contents from the book for this article.
Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.
This is the ninth in a series of articles on, “The Art of the Interview.”
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.
Understand that you’re going to be nervous during media interviews. I am greatly appreciative of top-notch spokespeople who will fully and freely admit that nervousness comes with the territory.
I have done far more interviews than most spokespeople, but a certain amount of fear always remains. I was so nervous before my first radio talk show (the most popular in Washington, D.C.) that I thought I would be unable to go on. I did. I was fine.
When you stand before a television camera or sit behind a microphone in a radio station, you’re going to feel something ranging from a twinge in the stomach to mild panic. There are existing materials that address overcoming the nervousness of public speaking, so I will not try to deal with all of the various strategies here.
What is important for you to acknowledge is that even in seasoned professionals, the nervous stomach remains.
Try not to become complacent when the nervousness subsides. I have done thousands of interviews only to find myself on live television experiencing a small panic attack.
I once went into a television studio to debate the member of a union who was making disparaging remarks about my organization. I did fine. The producer invited me back two weeks later to do it again on another topic. For whatever reason, when the red light on camera two came on and the host started asking questions, I felt an unanticipated nervousness that caused me to fumble through the interview.
I have done lots of live and taped interviews since then, and I have done most of them successfully because I acknowledge the possibility of nervousness and prepare for it ahead of time. I find that holding my breath and counting to ten before I slowly exhale seven or eight times immediately before the interview works wonders.
Extensive practice (and the confidence that comes with it) is your best defense. Sometimes I pretend I am an overly confident person giving a speech or doing an interview. My practice sessions are my scripts.
Think that this advice is strange? Well, did you ever watch a famous actor being interviewed on television? Some of them are terrible! While on the big screen, they are great. Without a script, they stumble and sometimes stumble badly. Why would you be any different?
Get yourself a script. Practice your lines. The principal “panic” time is when you begin.
Smile to yourself, recognize the moment for what it is and continue. The initial 10 percent of your interview, speech or talk show appearance should be scripted.
It’s not necessary to do this word-for-word. Having key words or themes can be enough. But the most important thing to remember about being nervous is that few who see the report or witness your address will notice.
I have given speeches before hundreds of people and I was so nervous that I thought for sure that it would be noticeable. At the end of the speech, many remarked at how good it was.
You are never as nervous to others as you believe yourself to be. While you are sure that you’re making a fool of yourself, you’re not.
Try not to be hard on yourself when you feel that sense of panic. You may notice it, but in all probability others in the room will not. Even if they do, they will recognize something of themselves in you. Acknowledge your nervousness. Your audience will rally to your support.
Sometimes, television stations will need you to go live. The interview may be on the street, in the studio, from a remote news desk or a variety of other places. Benefits of going live include the ability to make your points without interruption or interpretation. Sometimes, that objective is worth the risk.
Many times, unsettled or nervous feelings may be caused by internal disputes. You are told to do something stupid by superiors, and you cannot ignore the instructions.
When receiving silly or incorrect instructions, it may be hard to live with yourself and your own reputation due to doubt in your position. It’s hard enough to do this job without the distractions of internal disputes.
I do not know how to solve this problem beyond the fact that I try to blend what the reporter is asking for with internal directions. Neither is getting exactly what they want, but it’s my job to forge a middle ground that all can live with.
You are trying to win the war, not the battle. You may be the only one in the room at the time who understands this, but that’s the nature of the job. Now go get a drink and a good night’s sleep. Don’t kick the dog.
It Can Get Worse
I would be less than honest if I did not admit to having followed disagreeable instructions to the letter. My boss once derisively asked me if I knew how to follow any instructions at all; this occurred when we agreed to disagree about how to proceed.
There are times when you have to carry on as instructed. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised with the lack of fallout, and sometimes I accurately predict a train wreck. And yes, there have been times when an experienced reporter will observe that my response was unusually silly and suggest that I must be following bad advice.
“Having a bad day, Leonard,” one editor opined when his reporter was frustrated with my response.
“No comment,” was all I said. He decided not to use my original response.
It’s not the first time a member of the media understood unspoken circumstances and let it pass. Once again, your reputation precedes you and sometimes allows a benefit of doubt. The issue was revisited the following day and consequently, my boss had a change of heart.
Buying yourself a day is just not a tactic for media relations. Sometimes it applies equally to internal advice when cooler heads prevail.
Practice, practice, practice! I know it’s going to sound ridiculous, but the bathroom mirror is an excellent substitute for an audience. Debate your spouse. Argue points to neighbors. Take public speaking or acting lessons. Make sure that your primary communication objectives (nice and tight and clean) are understandable to a larger audience.
Take out instructional material from the library. Find material on the Internet. An excellent tactic is to conduct the debate in your own head.
Debate your employees. Have them play the “reporter from hell.” Encourage them to use every unethical tactic possible.
Record the session. Recognize that you are not only testing your communication objectives, but also looking to see how well you appear on camera.
Whenever an agency head or a technical expert is going to do talk radio, I sometimes grill that person until they are comfortable with every conceivable negative question. I teach them how to fall back on prepared communication objectives.
I cannot emphasize enough that your best defense in conducting any interview is to practice. Do your research, but the most important thing is your ability to test your strategies and themes with someone else until you are personally comfortable with the results.
The Sound of Your Voice
Get used to the sound of your own voice. I have witnessed spokespeople who are fine addressing small groups but feel strange when addressing a larger audience. It wasn’t the size of the audience that mattered as much as it was the public address system. It can be weird to hear your own voice coming back at you in real time.
The same thing applies when you are doing talk radio. Using headphones and hearing your voice in real time takes getting used to. When I do talk radio, I wear the headphones around my neck at all times unless forced to put them on to hear listeners’ questions. Even then, I only use one ear cup at a time to minimize the distortion of hearing my own voice.
Success With the Media
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X. Your reviews are appreciated.
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com.
Contact me at [email protected].