Succeeding in news interviews comes down to preparation, practice and performance

Top 10 Tips for Winning News InterviewsI was surprised when I reviewed the Google Analytics report for this site that an article I posted more than nine years ago, "Top 10 Tips for Preparing for a TV Interview," was again one of the most popular articles here. Not sure how or why that's the case, but everything changes over the course of a decade -- I don't know anyone who still uses a Blackberry! -- and I wanted to provide an update for those who are seeking PR advice prior to conducting a video interview.

Before we get too far into this, let's pause for this brief commercial announcement: Contact DPK Public Relations to arrange Media Interview Skills Training today or call 800.596.8708.

The biggest thing that has changed over that time is the rise of social media and the easy ability to produce and post video content for a worldwide audience to view. The reason that's important is that while traditional news coverage is valuable for reaching and influencing a broad local, national or international audience, you often can use these social tools to narrowly focus your message and reach the communities of people who care the most about what you have to say. 

Another big change is that all interviewers use video. Print journalists will frequently setup a camera and do a quick question or two using the camera on their smartphone to post on their publication website. Broadcast journalists are using Periscope to stream video promos that encourage people to tune into their broadcast. For these reasons I changed the headline from "TV Interview," to "News Interview." Essentially, the TV has become just another device through which people consume video and news content.

When we do on-camera role-play interviews during our Media Interview Skills Training workshops, participants are often their own harshest critics. They zero in on how big their ears are, the shadows under their eyes, the hair that's out of place. They wish they had taken greater control and didn't nervously laugh inappropriately. Many feel they generally made a mess of things.

The good news is it is practice and the real value of doing it is to shine the light on things that are going to drive you crazy in a real interview. In my experience, if a person doesn't do any on-camera practice prior to a video interview, they won't be satisfied. By practicing and viewing the results, you can mitigate or eliminate the little things that can be improved and also work through responses to challenging questions. That being the case, here is my updated Top 10 Tips for Succeeding in a Video Interview:

  1. Define your key messages. We recommend identifying the three things that are essential for your audience to understand and remember. If you have more than three, tough luck -- your audience can't remember more than three. So prioritize the three most important ideas, then come up with proof to back up those claims. Through the practice we describe below, you should be prepared to deliver these messages regardless of the questions you're asked. Acknowledge every question, but don't allow yourself to be dragged into the quicksand of whatever the interviewer wants to focus on. You have an objective in mind and you need to bridge back to your key messages in order to succeed. 

  2. Make your responses brief. According to a study by Daniel Hallin. a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, the length of a sound bite shrank from 43 seconds in 1968 all the way down to nine seconds in 1988. I don't recommend people only speak in nine second bursts, but it is important to understand that this is how your statements are ultimately going to be used. If you are disciplined and stay narrowly focused on the message you want to emphasize you will succeed. If you allow yourself to wander away from your message, you are running the risk that the WRONG nine seconds will be used. Keep it brief and resist the temptation to stray. 

  3. Make practice part of your routine. Practice can be in the form of media training, but it doesn't have to be. Practice can be as simple as propping your smartphone up and recording as a co-worker role-plays with you. The key is to DO it. Practice on camera and then view it back. Do it again -- a five minute Q&A is enough. And again -- do you see improvements? Are there still things to tweak and adjust? I always tell people I train that there is a reason that athletes and musicians -- even those at the pinnacle of their professions -- practice not once in a while, but every day. If you don't practice, you will never realize your potential as a spokesperson. Media training can help you make your ongoing practice more effective and impactful.  

  4. Make and hold eye contact. Focus on the person asking the questions and not on the camera. The more your eyes move around, the more uncomfortable your audience will become. Look down and the audience will get the impression that you are trying to hide something. Look up and the impression is that you are no prepared. Look side to side and the audience will get the feeling that you may be lying to them. A powerful, steady gaze speaks volumes about your believability and trustworthiness. Avoid baseball caps and sunglasses that make it hard for people to see your eyes. They are your most important communications tool.

  5. Dress the part. Ensure that the way you present yourself is aligned with how you want to be perceived. If you are responding to a problem, coming into the interview in a suit and tie may look like you are disconnected from the problem solving. If you want to create the impression that you have everything under control, dress in a dark suit. Doctors should be in a white coat. Consider the lapel pin and the messages that can be sent. If your message is fun and informal, you can probably leave the suit at home and wear a golf shirt. The important thing is that how you dress for a video interview should be a conscious decision and not an accident.

  6. Show you are engaged. When sitting during an interview, sit up and lean forward slightly. If you are in a chair that swivels, see if there is a way to lock it in place. Never lean back, because that sends all sorts of messages, including arrogance and aloofness to the audience. If you can feel the back of the chair on your back, scootch forward.

  7. Project your voice. Sorry to break this to you, but nobody in your audience is paying rapt attention to you. They are all doing something else AND viewing your interview. To get them to pay attention you need to verbally reach out through the speakers and shake them with your vocal cords. Even if the microphone is six inches from your mouth, I want you to project your voice so someone 15 or 20 feet away would be able to hear to clearly. A wonderful outcome of projecting your voice is that you typically enunciate words more crisply as well, which makes it easier for your audience to understand.

  8. Be ready for the worst case. Spending 10 or 15 minutes thinking about the dirty, nasty, stinky, tricky questions an interviewer could ask is always a great use of your time. Brainstorm likely questions as well as worst-case scenario questions. If you spend some quality time really thinking about it, you should be able to anticipate 85 percent of the questions. There will always be a few questions that come out of left field, but the key is to get into the mind of the interviewer. If you were digging for a really interesting and compelling story that has all the elements of a good drama, what would you ask? Once you have brought them to the surface, practice brief responses that enable you to bridge safely back to the points you want to emphasize.

  9. Make it personal. Adults consumer and remember information best when it is presented in the form of a personal story. The more personal the better. Identify specific anecdotes and observations that make your ideas human. 

  10. Be an active participant. Be the first to greet the interviewer. Don't wait for them to introduce themselves to you -- take control right off the bat with a big welcoming smile and a hearty heand shake. Give off the impression that this is YOUR interview. Own it. If you have thoughts about the best place to do the interview, speak up. If you have ideas for interesting story angles to explore, make suggestions. If you want to get a sense of the interviewer's background and level of sophistication about the topic, ask them as they get ready. The interview isn't something that is happening to you, you are happening to it!

Photo by Maryland GovPics.