MEDIA SURVIVAL GUIDE
(Example of training course notes)
Everyone doing their first TV interview is nervous. They will be concerned that they will look and sound foolish; that they won’t be able to answer the questions or remember what they wanted to say.
The TV studio will seem a strange and intimidating place, and while you may feel awkward and out of place, the interviewer will seem to be relaxed and perfectly at home: after all, they do this sort of thing every day of their working lives.
But without you, there is no interview: you have the specialist knowledge and understanding of the subject - and that’s why they’ve invited you. Your superior knowledge of the subject is your passport to controlling the way the interview goes.
This ‘survival guide’ will introduce you to a number of techniques and disciplines that will help you feel more relaxed, positive and confident – so that you not only survive the interview, but positively enjoy the experience, and both you and the Foreign Office benefit from the encounter.
Questions you need to ask
When you are first invited to be interviewed, there are a number of questions that you need – and are entitled - to ask, before agreeing to appear. Each one of them is important and will help you to decide on the best approach. Remember, the more you know about the context of the interview, the better you’ll be able to prepare.
q What is the interview about?
You need to know precisely what the subject will be. It’s not enough to have a vague concept of the general area of interest – but rather, what the specific theme or issues are going to be. Without this vital information, it will be hard for you to prepare properly.
q What kind of programme is it for?
1. Is it a hard news programme or an analytical one?
2. Will it be a discussion, involving other contributors with differing points of view?
3. Is it a one-off programme or part of a series?
Every type of programme has its own editorial objectives and consequently will use different interviewing techniques. It’s very important that you are aware of these and absorb the implications. It will affect the way you consider the message, information or point of view you wish to put across.
q Who is the presenter/interviewer?
Each presenter has their own style. For every tough-guy Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys there’s a softly-softly Jon Snow and James Naughtie. The more you are aware of an interviewer’s style, the better you will cope on the day. How do they ask questions? Is their style aggressive, persistent, or ‘soft’? Do they tend to be well briefed? Do they wait for the interviewee to complete an answer or leap in to interject? Try to find time to watch the presenter in advance of your interview to see what you might expect.
q Is the programme recorded or live?
If the programme is recorded, it may help you feel more relaxed – they can always rewind the tape and start again if you (or the interviewer) messes it up. But be careful – it also means they can cut any of your answers if they’re too long. The best policy is to regard all interviews as live – and keep your answers short and precise.
q How long will the interview be?
This will help you to sort out the most important points you wish to convey in the time available. It would be futile to spend hours compiling a mass of facts and figures if the interview is only going to last two minutes.
q What is the rest of the programme about?
It may be that your interview is to form only a small part of a programme which is investigating a single issue or theme. It’s therefore important to know in advance what the other elements are going to be so you get an idea of the context in which your interview will be used. This could have a significant bearing on how you to decide to present your argument.
Questions you need to ask
When you have a clear idea about the precise subject of the interview, the nature of the programme and the presenter’s style, you can start to prepare with some confidence.
Doing your ‘homework’ may seem a time-consuming and unnecessary task – “After all, I live with this subject every day and know all about it” – but thorough preparation is the key to success.
q What’s the message?
Before you decide on the information you want to impart and the facts and figures you want to introduce to support your argument, think of the viewers: it’s they, and not the interviewer, whom you’re addressing.
What is the key message you want them to understand and absorb? Remember, they will not retain much of the detail of what you say: one clearly stated, unambiguous and memorable thought is worth a dozen poorly expressed, vague or hesitant ones. It’s best to try and write this thought or message down in a single sentence so that it’s clear – not rambling or confused. Once you are happy with it, you can now start to develop the argument that will support it.
q Note down the list of important points that you wish to make
Do this as a list of bullet points in a structured, chronological order. Each point should naturally follow on from the point before, ensuring that your argument has a logical progression. If you find you’re covering pages with endless points, be ruthless and cross out all but the most important. (for a 2-3 minute interview, 2-3 main points should suffice.)
q Add a few relevant facts and figures that will support your case
Again, be careful to restrict yourself to a few. Viewers will just switch off – at least mentally, but possibly by channel-hopping – if they’re confronted by a welter of facts and figures. It will also be difficult for you to learn and retain them all – and you may spend the entire interview trying to remember the percentage increase in, say, rice production rather than doing what you should be doing: concentrating on the questions you’re being asked.
Ask a colleague or friend to conduct an interview with you, based on some anticipated questions. Make them ask you difficult or contentious questions that you think you will find hardest to answer. Analyse your responses with them, and try again using another approach if you’re not satisfied. But beware of over-rehearsing: you may lose spontaneity and, worse, attempt to remember your rehearsed answers when you come to do the interview for real.
The Interview – Sitting, Looking, Listening
Surveys show that the first impression you make on others is based:
55% on how you look
38% on how you sound (interesting or boring?)
7% on what you say (unless the first two are OK)
So how you look on the screen is as important as what you say. Close-up shots on camera make viewers acutely aware of whether you are comfortable, relaxed and at ease: your body language is accentuated and any outward signs of nervousness or awkwardness will be picked up and may distract viewers from what you are trying to tell them.
The best illustration of the power of effective visual presentation was the 1960 TV debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was broadcast live on US TV and radio. Afterwards, radio listeners thought Nixon had won hands down, because without the images of Nixon’s shiftiness, six o’clock shadow etc – the debate told a different story. It was a close-run thing, but America voted for Kennedy: the visuals won the day.
q Look the part
Make an effort to appear smart. Men should not turn up with a marked six o’clock shadow. For a studio interview, accept any offer of make-up, even if the experience is foreign to you. A simple powdering will avoid a shiny or pallid complexion under the TV lights.
q Dress conservatively
Avoid eye-catching jewellery, lapel pins, badges and headwear. All of these tend to distract the viewer, as to spectacles which reflect the studio lights. Wear contact lenses, if it’s an option for you. Avoid clothes with a fine repeated pattern, such as dots, small checks or stripes. Choose pastel shirts over white; blue or mid-toned jackets/suits rather than black; avoid bright red. Jackets are best buttoned when standing and open when sitting.
q Switch off your mobile, or silence the ring-tone
q Sit in a relaxed and comfortable position
Sit upright – don’t slouch. Try not to cross your legs or fold your arms: both actions can be construed to be signs of defensiveness, and slouching gives the impression that you don’t care about what you’re saying. Make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor so that your position is stable. Don’t move in your seat if you can avoid it, and remember B-B-C: sit with your Bottom at the Back of the Chair, while leaning slightly forward. This makes you look interested – and interesting.
q Ask what the first question is going to be
A perfectly reasonable request - and it gives you control of the first 30 secs or so of the interview, because you can rehearse your response in advance.
q Don’t fiddle with your hands
This is always seen as a sign of nervousness, as is clenching and unclenching your fists. Keep your hands still unless you naturally use them when you’re talking. Ideally, place them on your knees.
q Ditch the notes
Don’t refer to notes, unless you’re making a direct quote from a statement, or delivering a complex statistic. Prepare notes beforehand and then put them away. Three bullet points, representing your main messages, written on the back of your business card should suffice.
q Look directly at the interviewer and address your answers to them
There is nothing more likely to alert the viewers to a suspicion that you’re not being honest as looking away when you’re talking – even if you’re telling the truth. Avoid looking down at the floor when being asked a question. Establish eye contact with the interviewer and keep that contact going throughout the interview.
q On location, “Look behind you!”
For location interviews, check your rear-view mirror to ensure that distractions are kept to a minimum. If you’re being filmed in front of your company HQ, ensure that it’s framed as attractively as possible.
q Don’t smile if the subject is serious
Actually, it’s best to avoid smiling altogether, because – humanly reassuring thought it is - it might make the viewer think you are less than serious about the subject. If the interviewer attempts a joke then it is permissible to smile – but only fleetingly. Conversely, try not to frown or look too intense – a relaxed, calm expression is the best of all.
q DOWN THE LINE techniques
The trick is to be at ease with the camera, and to look at it as if it were human. It helps to look deep into the lens at the shutter – “look at the lens as if you were looking into your lover’s eyes” – otherwise you tend to look dazed and confused, or stiff and formal. And keep looking at it throughout the interview: it’s hard, but essential. Shifting your eyes makes you look just that: shifty.
The Interview – Speaking
When we’re nervous, we all tend to speak more quickly. Try practising an exaggeratedly slow delivery before the interview. You may be surprised to discover that, far from sounding absurd, it actually makes you sound more authoritative and in control.
q Short sentences and simple words
Keep It Simple Stupid. The object of the interview is to get your message across as clearly and comprehensibly as possible. If the viewers are struggling to understand what you’re talking about – particularly when confronted by difficult subjects – they may not grasp your intended message, or even miss the point altogether. Long, involved sentences and unusual or difficult vocabulary often imply an arrogance that’s both annoying and off-putting.
For a general audience/readership, pitch your answers at the level of an intelligent 14-year-old: no higher than that. For a specialist/trade interview, you can raise the bar to an intelligent 16-year-old, but no higher than that.
q Avoid …
… long lists of facts or statistics, or both. Take note Gordon Brown! Not only are these boring to listen to (for all but your closest colleague, friends and family) but they can often prevent you from conveying a proper understanding of the subject. Sometimes they may also be seen as a subtle way of obscuring the real issues and problems, even if that’s not your intention.
q Also avoid … jargon. It instantly excludes everyone who doesn’t belong to your selective ‘club’.
… when you’ve answered the question! Don’t feel that you need to keep talking – the more you say the more you may undermine the effectiveness of your argument. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself constructing your own gallows. It’s often more effective to answer a question quite briefly and allow the interviewer to ask a supplementary one. If this leads to a moment of silence on air, that’s their problem, not yours.
The Interview – Answering the Question
Remember: the interviewer is not trying to defeat the person being interviewed, but to expose and clarify the subject so that the viewers will be better informed. The interviewer’s task is to encourage someone to make their case while satisfying critical public interest.
Therefore, it’s important not to see the interviewer as a protagonist, and to bear in mind the job they’re doing on behalf of the viewers: namely, to call you to account. However challenging their questions might appear to be, their purpose is – or should be – to ensure that your argument is valid, sustainable, and stands up to proper scrutiny. Don’t become angry or frustrated or personal. Remain calm and detached – even if you are asked the same question repeatedly. Sensitive viewers will admire your cool under palpably unreasonable pressure.
q First question
Find out from the interviewer what his first question’s going to be, so you can get your key points in order. This should get you off to a confident start. Prepare your answers, but don’t over-rehearse them or ‘learn your lines’, because you need to be able to adapt your words if the interviewer comes back with a supplementary question.
q Listen carefully
Have you really understood what you’re being asked? Often, interviewees rush into a defensive position without thinking what the question is really implying. If you haven’t clearly understood what you’re being asked, ask them to repeat it. Think before you speak, and consider how you can use the question to further your case. It’s often a good idea to start with a brief, succinct answer, and then develop a fuller explanation which will allow you to work in your message.
q Never try to evade the question
No matter how difficult or uncomfortable the question, any attempt at deliberately not answering it will give the viewers the impression that you have something to hide – even if you haven’t. However, you are perfectly entitled to interpret the question as you see it or choose to answer only a part of it.
q Challenging the question
You are perfectly entitled to do this. If you’re sure the question contains a misinterpretation of fact, for example, you should challenge it immediately. Try not to do this aggressively, or by interrupting, or by wasting too much of the valuable interview time in the process. Politely point out the mistake, as you see it. Be careful not to get into an argument over facts and figures, because this could easily weaken your case and detract from your message.
q Listen for the last question
Most interviewers signal the last question by prefacing it with “Finally …” or similar. This is an opportunity – your final opportunity – to restate your message – but do it simply and concisely, preferably more so than you did the first time. When you’ve done that, get round to answering whatever you were asked!
q End of the interview
Try to hold your gaze at the interviewer for a second or two until the director cuts away from you to a new shot. A grimace or sigh of relief can undermine your whole performance. Wait for the floor manager to say you can go before leaving your chair, otherwise you’ll take half the studio with you!
q Post Performance Blues
You will inevitably feel dissatisfied with your performance – everyone does. Don’t dwell on the things that you wish you’d said, or beat yourself up because an answer didn’t come out in the way you’d hoped. Wait for a couple of days – and then be brave and watch the recording (which you are entitled to ask for as you leave the studio – but give prior warning, if possible.) If you can summon up the courage, watch the recording with someone you can trust to give an objective analysis of your ‘performance’ – good or bad. By analysing, and finding ways of not repeating, your mistakes, you can only do better next time.
q And remember …
As with everything in life, the more you do it, the better you’ll be at it.
Radio is an intimate medium, a one-to-one medium. It doesn’t broadcast pictures, but it can create them. You’re not addressing the nation – just talking to the person listening. It doesn’t matter how you look, but sounding assured and interested is vital. Delivering your answers in a dull, flat monotone won’t do.
As with all media interviews, find out as much as you can before agreeing to appear. It’s helpful to know in advance whether you’re going to be in the studio – and if so, whether you’ll be on your own or part of a group discussion. Will the interview be down the line from a remote studio? On location? Live or recorded? Will the interview stand alone or be part of a pre-recorded ‘package’.
q Make use of the time
A live interview of 2-3 minutes leaves you not much more than 250 words (once 30 secs has been deducted for the interviewer’s questions) so the better you’re prepared, the fewer words you’ll waste getting to the point. Only when you’ve got your key messages out should you allow yourself to expand.
q Look at the interviewer
Even though you can’t be seen by the audience, it helps to maintain eye contact with the interviewer, as if you were on TV. The interviewer will warm to you if you establish an easy relationship with him.
q Be natural
Keep your voice normal – talk as if you were conversing with a friend/colleague – but try to do so with energy. Let your personality breathe, and remember that on radio you can hear a smile.
q Keep calm
Be warm and confident, even if you’re fending off bad news or criticism. Don’t interrupt the interviewer – it sounds especially rude on radio - and at all costs don’t get angry with him, no matter how aggressive or off the mark his line of questioning. However, don’t be intimidated by the interviewer: if he interrupts before you’ve finished making your point, politely insist that you’re allowed to continue before dealing with the next question. Don’t be bullied by persistent or aggressive interviewers into saying something you don’t believe or didn’t intend to say beforehand. You should have a clear vision of what you want to get out of the interview – and you should stick to it.
q Word pictures
Human stories and examples in the form of ‘word pictures’ bring any media interview to life, and can be particularly effective on radio, which is a very colourful medium because the listeners rely more on their imagination. That’s one of the reasons The Archers has such a huge following: every listener imagines something different.
q The Power of Silence
Never under-estimate the effectiveness of the dramatic pause, and if your short, pithy answer leads to a moment of silence while the interviewer thinks of the next question, that’s not your problem. ‘Dead air’ is the interviewer’s responsibility, and gives the listener a moment longer to digest your message. Don’t say more than you have to.
3. The Press
You often hear it said that ‘you can’t trust a journalist’ or ‘stories are distorted and people are misquoted’. This certainly happens, but it’s not the norm. 99% of journalists are not out to misquote, bully or make a fool of you. The mistake usually arises because the interviewee hasn’t made the point clearly enough. Instead of regarding an interview as akin to a visit to the dentist, see it as an ideal opportunity to get your point across. Even if the scenario’s negative, there’s almost always something positive and upbeat to say. Be friendly, inclusive and interesting and you increase your chances of winning them over, and reporting the story from your perspective. But there are some essential safeguards …
q Check the context
Interviews with newspaper reporters can be used in a variety of ways, and it helps to know what the journalist plans to do with yours. Ask, in advance, whether it’s for a simple news story or a lengthy feature. What’s the deadline? What issues are to be covered? What information does the reporter already have? Who else is he talking to? Is he pursuing a pre-determined ‘angle’ or line?
q It’s good to talk
In general, it’s better to be represented than not, because the story will very likely be written whether you’re in it or not, and the ‘vacuum’ might well be filled by someone else who doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. But you must be sure of your subject, confident of your position, and have something positive to say. Otherwise, you’ll become a punch-bag.
q Establish the rules of engagement
Decide whether you’re prepared to be quoted directly, or just providing information that you would prefer not to be attributed to yourself. This is sometimes referred to as “off the record”, but such arrangements really only exist in Hollywood movies. In the real world, nothing that you say is truly off the record – it will surface somewhere. The way to decide whether it’s safe or unwise to say something is whether you’d be happy to see it appear in print.
q Reporters know things
Although you’re likely to have more knowledge than the reporter of your specialist subject, they may know more than you think and can trip you up. Be ready to defend your case – it may be contradicted. Think about how the reporter might come back at you, and rehearse your response. If you’re ready for the toughest possible question, it won’t unsaddle you when it arrives.
q Stay focused
Press interviews can be unstructured, rambling affairs with many stops and starts, repetitions and spelling checks etc – and the killer question might be lurking in the 18th minute of a 20-minute interview. Remain vigilant even when you think the interview is petering out – and even after the reporter closes his notebook or appears to being the interview to an end by thanking you for your time. An unguarded comment during the opening or closing pleasantries will find its way into print, even if it wasn’t obviously noted down at the time.
q Your right to correct mistakes
At the end of the interview, it’s permissible to ask the reporter to read back his shorthand note and tell you which quotes he’s likely to use. If you’re unhappy with anything you’ve said, negotiate the quote with them until you’re happy with it. If you’re not happy with it, ask for it to be removed. Assuming the deadline is not too tight, it’s also permissible for you to ring the newsdesk to clarify or correct something that didn’t come out quite right.
The Press Reporter’s Tricks and Traps
q Beware of the paraphrase
Watch out for the reporter summarizing what you’ve said in his own words: “So what you’re really saying is …” If it’s a fair summary, agree to it, but if it’s not, don’t allow an incorrect paraphrase to go unchallenged, or the reporter will be entitled to put your quotation marks around his words.
q Don’t get hypothetical
One trick used by reporters in search of a spicy quote is to pose the hypothetical question: “Imagine if such-and-such a disaster were to happen?” or “How close did we come to total paralysis of the tube system” (after a relatively minor incident, for example). Such questions can lead you into dangerous areas if you grace them with a response. Not only will the follow-up questions become ever more lurid, but your comments may be removed from the context of the interview and printed as stand-alone remarks as an apparent summation of your position. This could be disastrous. Scotch the hypothetical question at birth.
q Critics? What critics?
Some reporters hide behind phrases such as “your critics say …” to get away with making a negative, but unreasonable suggestion. If you’ve never heard the criticism, or don’t know where it came from, ask for more detail about the source and the precise comment allegedly made. Respond to a question like this only if you get a convincing explanation from the reporter.
Margaret Thatcher: “Critics? CRITICS? Who are these critics? Give me their names?!?”
q The Free Lunch
Just like “off the record” there’s no such thing. Some interviews are organized over a drink or a meal that may be at the paper’s expense. It’s great fun to be wined and dined, but remember that the reporter is going to have to justify his expenses by coming back from the meeting with something useful – don’t flatter yourself that you’ve been invited out for your sparkling wit and repartee. It’s a trade-off, pure and simple, and if you feel your tongue is in danger of being loosened by that extra glass of wine, politely decline it. Know in advance what you’re prepared to ‘give’ the reporter in the course of the meal, and stick to it.
q The Closed Notebook
When the journalist closes his notebook, or starts making small-talk to indicate the interview proper has finished, it doesn’t mean his antennae have stopped twitching for the day.
The TV detective Columbo often caught his prey by finishing the formal interview, leaving the room … and then returning to say “There’s just one last thing ... ” This, of course, was the killer question that he’d been storing up until the suspect had dropped their guard.
Andrew Marr: “On rare occasions, the story is so good that a short visit to the loo to jot notes down on a paper napkin is needed. Few pleasures on this little green planet are so glorious as tucking a real story into your breast pocket and returning for some cheese and a final glass of claret.”