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You’ve studied print journalism—learned the best way to ask questions, craft a story, and write a catchy headline—so when your story makes it big and you’re interviewed on TV, it should be a piece of cake, right? Not necessarily.
I’ve media trained many print journalists over the years and have noticed one main thing. The confidence they have when they walk into a session is dashed once I play back the first mock TV interview. Were they concise, engaging, and effective at delivering their message? More often than not, no. Playing interviewee instead of interviewer is a different ballgame.
There is hope! With the right knowledge and dedication, you can master this side of the microphone.
Being an effective TV communicator begins with the right messaging. I don’t doubt your writing skills. Writing a good story is your area of expertise. But if you package your TV message the same way you package your blogs/articles, it’s more than likely your TV interview will be ineffective.
Think of your TV messaging as a highlight to your story. The goal is to drive people to read your article. The common mistake is to go on TV thinking it’s a format for giving in-depth detail. This is a bad move for two reasons. First, TV’s time constraints mean you will never be able to give all the details. Second, TV is, first and foremost, an entertainment format that is thematic. When we go into detail instead of focusing on a theme, we lose the emotional pull, and therefore, the audience. Remember, President Obama won on “Change We Can Believe In.” Did he give details?
Where do you begin when preparing a TV message? It comes down to two components: a main message and related examples.
Your main message is the theme of your interview. It’s the main thing you want your audience to know. It should be persuasive in nature and be the first answer you give, regardless of the question (later, we’ll discuss how to transition). Here is an example of a main message:
“Nationalized health care is not the answer. What we need is true reform that lowers cost while improving quality.”
Notice I didn’t just analyze or give a doom-and-gloom perspective on the topic. I made a statement about the current situation, then offered hope that something could be done. This type of answer leads to softball questions by the reporter—for example, “You say that you want true reform, but what does that look like?”
Your subsequent answers should build on your main message by using statistics and examples to illustrate it. The key here is to relate to individuals or family units instead of policies or America as a whole. Don’t say: “This new energy policy is going to cost $400 billion.” Instead, say: “This new policy is going to cost the average American family an additional $800 a year in energy costs.”
This shows your audience what the information means to them. Not only is it easier for them to put in perspective, but it also shows that you understand their struggles. It’s a win-win for you.
A good way to determine appropriate examples and statistics is to anticipate what the reporter will ask you. In other words, think ahead so you know how to transition to examples you want to use.
Bridging is also known as “spin.” It’s an extremely important tactic, since it allows you to get to your main message and related examples regardless of the question asked. You may wonder whether bridging seems rude to the audience. If it’s done incorrectly, it can. But with the right phrase, it merely looks like you’re guiding the reporter to the most important item you want the audience to know.
So, how do you bridge? The trick is to answer part of the question and then go to your message. For example, if I’m asked to speculate on who will win the GOP primary, but my main message is the harms of big government, I would respond with:
“While I don’t know who the winner will be, here’s the main issue that should be addressed—lessening the burden of big government on all Americans.”
Remember, the bridge should only be a sentence (two at the max), since you want the majority of your response to be your main message or related examples. Those who bridge seamlessly are the true masters of TV communication.
Now that you’ve worked on your message, it’s important to understand the two types of TV formats you may face: taped interviews and live interviews.
I find the taped interview to be the most challenging of the two formats because the audience never hears your conversation with the reporter. It only hears the one answer (maybe two answers, if you’re lucky) inserted into the news package.
The goal of the taped interview is to edit yourself—don’t let others edit you. The common mistake is to talk and talk, then wonder why your best answer wasn’t used. Whatever you say is fair game. Stay on message so that whatever they use is your message. That equals a win for you.
The length of your answers for the taped interview is a very brief twelve seconds or less. This is the ultimate sound bite. If you talk longer than twelve seconds, chances are that the rest of your answer will be edited out and your answer won’t be complete or have the same impact. Getting your message out in twelve seconds or less is a challenge. But with practice, you can get there!
The most fantastic thing about the taped interview is that it’s okay to start again if you mess up. You can also give the reporter a fact sheet about the topic. The reporter may use this language to write his or her narration, which would put the news package in a framework more favorable to your position.
The live TV interview, my personal favorite, comes in two forms: one-on-one interviews and debates. The goal is to understand what you will face before you get to the studio. Remember, the producers need you, so it’s OK to ask questions. Here are some suggestions:
Once you have your answers, do some research. If you’ve never watched the show you’ll be on, watch the show. Become familiar with the host (friendly or not friendly to your position) and the style of the show (light or serious in nature). For example, if you are going on CNBC, you will use different examples than you would on the Today show. Always think about your audience and how your message speaks to them. If you are debating someone, do some research on the person and where he or she works. This will help you anticipate rebuttals to your message.
In a live interview, your answers should be between fifteen and twenty seconds long. If you go longer than twenty seconds, you start to lose the attention of the audience and a host or the person you are debating will interrupt you. Don’t keep talking until someone cuts you off. Say your message, then stop. Questions will follow, and dialog is always more interesting than monologue.
Your goal is to look engaged. While a smile is a quick way to look present in an interview, most people struggle to smile when they speak. If you are in this category, you are still in luck! By moving your head and hands, you’ll look interested and passionate about the interview.
While these movements aid your overall appearance, it’s important not to use gestures that are distracting. People shouldn’t remember what your hands and head were doing. The worst offenders are:
The best hand gestures are waist-high and circular in motion. The best head movement is a natural up-and-down movement as you speak.
People often wear colors that don’t translate well on TV because they don’t realize that what looks good in person doesn’t necessarily look good on the screen. While most colors can work with the best lighting and the best cameras, it is important to be safe.
The safe suit colors are grays, blues, and browns, and the safe shirt colors are blues and off-whites. Other good TV colors are red, purple, pink, and yellow. Use color where you can, since the bright lights and the electronic format of the camera can wash you out—color brings back life. The non-safe colors are white and black, especially when worn together. White reflects light and tends to glow on camera, and black absorbs light. Since black requires a lot of light, you run the risk of blending into the background if you don’t have proper lighting.
Beyond color, patterns can present problems. Have you ever seen someone wearing a tie with a small pattern that seemed to crawl? The technical TV term is the moiré effect, and it’s due to a small pattern on the tie (the worst offender) or another article of clothing. For safety, stick with solids. This problem isn’t as prevalent in high definition, but since over half the country still watches on standard definition screens, stick with what’s safe.
While you may now have better knowledge of what you will face if you are interviewed on camera, it is still essential to practice, practice, practice. I often hear during a media training session, “Oh, John Smith is just a natural on camera.” Some individuals have a better knack for it, but even the best have to practice.
Attending a media training workshop is a great place to start. Not only will you be interviewed on your message (which I hope you will develop after reading this article), you’ll also have the opportunity to hear and see yourself on camera. And we all have a lot of fine-tuning to do in this area.
If you do attend a media training workshop, your work doesn’t end there. Mastering TV communication only comes with regular practice, which you can do on your own. You probably have a camera on your phone, and I’m sure you have a friend or colleague who would be willing to interview you. It doesn’t have to be fancy. The goal is to become comfortable as the interviewee and stay on message. Yes, it does take effort and is an ongoing process, but the good news is that you can master this side of the microphone. The question is, are you willing to put in the work?
Beverly Hallberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of the District Media Group.
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