If you or your CEO has been called upon by a TV news reporter to comment on a mass layoff, product recall or other urgent news situation, you know the feeling that this old Wide World of Sports adage can evoke:
The thrill of victory
and the agony of defeat.
Based upon media training dozens of corporate CEOs, nonprofit executives and spokespeople, combining mock interviews with cameras rolling to prepare them for real-world interviews, we know that media interviews can be fun, positive experiences that enhance you and your organization’s reputation. Done poorly, though, media interviews can be excruciating for you and result in a loss of brand reputation for your company.
Since it’s (almost) always more fun to learn from other people’s mistakes, we thought we’d offer up seven of the most horrific things an executive can do in any media interview – illustrated by the following poor souls’ performances on camera …
1. Look like you’re about to be kidnapped by aliens
Most executives aren’t in business to give media interviews, so engaging in an activity you’re not used to will generate a case of nerves. That’s okay. It can even be good IF you channel that extra energy into positive mental and physical action before and during the interview.
While on camera, don’t allow yourself to show nervousness through expressions such as wide-eyed terror, inability to sit or stand still (that’s a modern-day response to the prehistoric fight or flight reaction) or even, in some cases, sweating like a marathoner. Once, during a practice interview session with a corporate CEO who was about the launch an exciting, new healthcare product, it became clear to both us that he probably wasn’t the right person to go on camera. The man was so nervous trying to answer the softball questions I was lobbing his way that he literally sweat through his blue dress shirt. I can’t imagine how he might have reacted during a real interview.
Actors, athletes and other public figures often use various techniques to harness those butterflies. You can too. Consider visualization; deep breathing, meditation or biofeedback to center the self; and, of course, simple rehearsal and practice, as is necessary even for a 60 Minutes regular.
2. Underwhelm the reporter
It’s important to speak succinctly and precisely when answering a reporter’s questions. After all, you have only a very small window of opportunity to say what you want to say – often as little as 30 seconds or less. However, monosyllabic answers aren’t going to get your key messages across.
Hyper short replies on-camera generally tend to create awkward interview situations. They also make you look uncooperative, uninterested, less than reliable or trustworthy and, in some cases, stupid. Plus, you most likely won’t get asked back for a second interview. Here’s a mash-up of well-known Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s painfully short and underwhelming interview responses:
3. Let your body show what you’re really thinking
I once witnessed a TV interview with the leader of a public school system who was commenting on a hotly contested teacher strike. The leader was interviewed in the comfort of his office, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the desk. No matter what the school system leader said on camera about his concern for the state of education in that community, or the fate of the teachers, his lax body posture caused most people not to believe him. Would you?
It’s vital to recognize that body language is much more believable than any words that come out of your mouth. Pay attention to what your body is saying. Even during phone interviews with print reporters, your body language will influence how you deliver your responses and how they are perceived.
4. Allow the shiny object to grab your attention
Media interviews never happen in a vacuum. Whether they take place in the confines of a TV studio, in the comfort of your office, or at a carefully arranged neutral location, life continues to buzz along as you’re talking to a reporter. Sirens will inevitably blare in the background. Someone off camera will sneeze or drop the files they’re carrying. A phone will ring. (By the way – here’s a related tip: If you feel it necessary to keep your cell phone with you during an interview – don’t just put it on silent or vibrate, turn it off.)
Allowing yourself to be distracted by something happening off camera will disrupt your thoughts and make you look shifty as your gaze veers from the reporter to over your left shoulder. Focus is the key here. As an example, have you seen this train wreck of a YouTube clip with Bruce Willis? He was clearly not engaged in this interview:
See minute 4:00
5. Talk like a broken record
Every media trainer will tell you to have key messages or talking points prepared in advance of any interview. But using them to answer nearly every question is not advised. Your job as your organization’s spokesperson is to answer a reporter’s questions – and weave in your key messages when it makes sense to do so.
Sounding like a broken record of talking points will make you look ill-prepared, untrustworthy and, frankly, not very intelligent. Here’s an example of how Alvin Greene, a candidate in the 2010 United States Senate election in South Carolina, used his “DeMint started the recession” key messages a little too literally:
See minute 1:00
6. Wing it
Don’t ever do this. Always be prepared by anticipating a reporter’s questions beforehand and how you’ll respond to them. Winging it is the biggest career-limiting move you can make as your organization’s spokesperson.
Up and coming artist James McCartney is a prime example. Perhaps resting on his father Sir Paul McCartney’s laurels, the interviewee appears (and is) completely unprepared for his media interview on BBC News:
See minute 1:45
7. Talk, talk, talk and talk
Our culture is uncomfortable with silence. Rambling can lead to trouble, such as revealing information that could be embarrassing or, worse, confidential.
Knowing when to stop talking is the single biggest hurdle for nearly every business and nonprofit executive I’ve had the privilege to media train. We all want to be helpful and that often prompts us to keep our lips moving. Learn to answer a reporter’s question and then be silent.
Here’s a great example of a long, rambling response from chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), earlier this month:
See minute 1:30
So, in sum, we hope that through these comically unsettling examples of media interviews gone bad, you have learned seven things not to do on camera. At the root of it all, remember that you have four main priorities as a spokesperson: 1) Protect yourself, 2) protect your organization, 3) answer questions and 4) weave in key messages, at appropriate times.
Do you have any tricks of the trade when it comes to on-camera media interviews?