A Media Star is Born: Three Rules for the Perfect Interview
The 3 ironclad rules you need to know before talking to reporters.
It happens to professional speakers every day: We turn on the television and see experts who do exactly what we do. They’re talking about their expertise and might even get a chance to plug their new books. You’re not alone if your immediate thought is “Why them and not me?” Sometimes the answer is because they are simply better guests. So what are the secrets to being a great guest and becoming a media star?
Rule #1: DON’T TALK TO THE MEDIA-TALK TO THEIR AUDIENCE.
It’s common to put reporters on a pedestal, especially the ones we watch every day, but the reality is they are no smarter or better than you. In fact, most are generalists who know a little about a lot, and whose presentation skills convince an audience that they’re smarter than they really are. So don’t think of it as conversing at a I high level with someone you believe is super-smart. More important, the reporter isn’t your audience, which is actually made up of the people at home. Research tells us the average person watching television has a sixth-grade education, and the average person reading a newspaper or other written source has an eighth-grade reading level.
This means that you need to speak in terms and language that a 12- or 14-year-old could understand. You don’t win any prizes for using big words and jargon; acronyms are deadly, as is the trap of giving too many details.
Many experts shun this advice, saying they don’t want to “dumb down” their information and that their target audience is much smarter. The best mindset you can adopt, however, is the same one we’ve learned through diversity training, which is to respect all people and to be inclusive of all audiences. Conversely, when you use 50-cent words and technical terms, often the person interviewing you has no idea what you are saying. This leads us to the second rule, based on how little most interviewers know about your topic.
Rule #2: ALWAYS KNOW THE FIRST WORDS THAT WILL COME OUT OF YOUR MOUTH.
Most people who saw NSA member Lee Ellis in January on Fox & Friends, discussing his perils as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, thought he did a brilliant job. One of his secrets is that he knew exactly what his first words would be when he opened his mouth. Those first words were scripted and practiced the day before. Most importantly, those words provided the context for all that he believes and would talk about in the interview. They served as a verbal headline.
Many people reject this philosophy, because they don’t believe you can know what to say without knowing the question you’ll be asked. Or, they don’t want to sound scripted or rehearsed, and think they are much better when they are spontaneous.
Well, here is a confession from my 15 years as a journalist, combined with a revelation from nearly 20 years as a coach to spokespeople. If you’ve ever been interviewed, would you agree that while you were talking, you were partially distracted by wondering what the next question would be? I’ll be honest, when I was a reporter and my guests were blabbing on and on, I was often wondering what my next question would be—primarily because their answer was rambling, full of jargon, too detailed, or lacking in anything quotable.
The revelation here is that both the reporter and the guest are wondering what the next question will be and no one is concentrating on the current answer. This creates an amazing opportunity. Your pre-planned answer can be a great one, it can provide context to all you believe about your subject, it can make for a great quote, it alleviates the jitters about not knowing what to say … and when phrased correctly, it sends a verbal cue to the reporter to ask you a perfect follow-up question.
Whether they agree with you or not, reporters can be a little wacky or patronizing, and can sometimes come out of left field with semi-crazy questions. With that in mind, Ellis determined that a universal truth about his book and leadership classes was that everything he knows about leadership he learned more than 40 years ago as a prisoner of war. Hence, his pre-planned opening response to anything was going to be, “Forty years ago, I could have never imagined being here, let alone that those lessons would be so relevant today.” (Search YouTube for “Lee Ellis Fox & Friends” to see the interview.)
Rule #3: TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERTISE—DON’T PROMOTE YOUR BOOK OR YOUR SPEAKING BUSINESS.
Reporters do not want to be your publicist and they resent uninvited attempts to make a sale at their expense. In Ellis’ case, the Fox producer invited him to speak specifically about his book, since it was a paid publicist who secured the interview. In this case, a pro-military show was happy to invite a war hero to talk about his book. But even in Ellis’ case, we coached him to talk about his experience and expertise, knowing that selling a few books is a short-term goal, whereas being perceived as a leadership expert would be the correct way to build his long-term business.
The best way for most speakers to position themselves for a media interview is to watch for trends and events in the news upon which they can provide comment as an expert. If your expertise is fitness or goal setting, the media are clamoring for your content every January as they discuss New Year’s resolutions, while spring cleaning tips are a natural for an organization expert. Because my expertise is effective communications in critical times, I’m often interviewed when there are major crises in the news, ranging from industrial accidents, to hurricanes, to mass shootings.
YOUR NEXT 6 STEPS
- Re-examine your expertise, and determine what news events might warrant your comment to the media. Start with your local media before seeking national exposure.
- Just as speakers know what their opening lines are before they take the stage, you should determine what your opening line should be for your interview.
- Practice your interview several times with a colleague before the real interview. The best results are achieved when you videotape the practice interview so you can critique it. Repetition also internalizes your preplanned sentences so they do not sound stiff or rehearsed.
- Create a series of great preplanned quotes and points using the same technique you used to determine your opening sentence.
- Realize that most interviews are shot and you only have time to give a few key points and highlights. Think CliffsNotes, not War and Peace. Never overwhelm the reporter or the audience with excessive details. Less is more.
- Enter every interview with the mindset that absolutely no business may come from your appearance on radio, television, newspaper or the web. You might not book any speaking engagements, and you might not sell a single book. Often, an interview is little more than one more tiny piece of that constant marketing machine you must run to further position yourself as an expert. Sometimes, however, one interview leads to many more. It is through the critical mass of many interviews over many years that your expertise evolves into profit.
Every great speech results from practice, and your best marketing is every speech. Applying those same principles will help you become a media star— along with planning, practicing and delivering flawlessly every time.