An interview on CNBC or an appearance on Bloomberg TV can boost your company’s reputation or your personal brand—or turn into an embarrassing meltdown. How do you navigate the tricky questions, look good, sound smart, and stay on-message? Here’s Quartz’s guide to mastering the television interview.
The interviewer may try to joke and put you at ease—but make no mistake, this isn’t a casual conversation. Think thoroughly about your message and prepare four to five key points that support it. “Each of the media points should be 4-5 sentences long, and must start off with a lead line that grabs the viewer’s attention,” says Joanne Stevens of Stevens Media consulting. She also recommends (pdf) offering to provide videos, photos or charts that can help convey your message better.
As the American Psychological Association notes, the interviewer may not cover the entire subject or give you equal time in a debate. The onus will be on you to raise the points that you want to talk about. Figure out which ones matter most and get them out first, in case you can’t get touch on them all.
Keep your message simple and succinct, and know when to stop. The average length of recorded soundbites is now under 10 seconds; on live interviews the ideal duration is under 30 seconds. In the Journal of Economic Education Daniel Hamermesh writes that experts must try to develop “pithy one-liners that summarize your ideas.”
The University of Delaware tells its academics to prepare their talking points by anticipating the questions they might be asked. “What is the impact on society? Why should the public care?” That’s true even if you’re not an academic. Frame your talking points in terms that matter to the rest of the world, not just to you.
For every point you want to make, have a lively example ready to illustrate it with. Concrete facts are more memorable than general arguments. Hamermesh also suggests using “similes or metaphors that might stick in viewers’ minds.”
Similarly, use short words about concrete things rather than long words about abstract concepts; people remember words that conjure up a visual image. So instead of saying, for example, “This will increase investment in real estate,” say “this will make people spend more money on houses.”
This might seem obvious—but nothing is “off the record” on TV, especially live TV, where you won’t even be able to retract off-the-cuff remarks or ill-thought-out comments. If you’re doing a recorded interview, ask in advance if they’ll let you retake questions you fluff. But in general, Kansas University’s advice is to stick to what you know and not comment on areas outside your expertise.
It’s the worst answer you can give to a tough question. The audience immediately feels you have something to hide. The US National Communications Association guidelines suggest (pdf) that if you do not want to answer a specific question, it is “best to rephrase your general message or refer to your key message on the topic.” If you don’t know the answer, says the NCA, be honest that you don’t, rather than look evasive.
And if faced with a hostile line of questioning, avoid repeating any of the interviewer’s negative terms or phrasing. You don’t want that to be the clip that is showed over and over.
If you’re representing an organization, make sure that what you say is aligned to its stance, no matter what your own take is. Small Business Notes says it’s best to avoid personal viewpoints altogether.
As the University of Florida recommends (pdf), use gestures, facial expressions and body language to add vitality to your words. You may even need to slightly exaggerate your facial expressions and variations in the pitch of your voice to not sound monotonous.
But find a balance. Speak too fast, and the audiences won’t be able to understand you; speak too slowly and they will be bored. Move around or wave your hands too much and they’ll be distracted; hold yourself too still and you’ll look like a robot. When you’re not speaking, keep your expression pleasant but neutral.
Now that almost everyone has a cellphone or laptop camera, there’s really no excuse for not doing a practise run—painful as it may be. Prepare some talking points and record yourself saying them into the camera, or have a friend pretend to interview you, and watch it together. It’s amazing how much you’ll pick up.
If you’re in a studio with an interviewer, look at them, never at the camera. But if you’re alone with the camera being patched in to the studio, look only at the camera; looking away can make you seem shifty or ill-prepared.
You may be the preeminent expert in your field, but if you don’t look the part, it won’t matter on television. Stick to a conservative, professional look suitable to your field. Hats and clunky jewelry are distracting and are best avoided. Media Training Worldwide says solid, pastel colors work best; avoid high contrasts like black and white, stripes or small checks—though if the studio is filming in HD, this may not matter as much. Ask in advance if the program has any dress or color no-nos.
Obviously, double-check before going on that you don’t have food stuck in your teeth, crazy hair, or stains on your clothes. And do ask which part of you will be in the shot; you won’t see yourself on a screen, so it’s important for you to have a sense of what the audience will be seeing.
Easier said than done, of course. But don’t let nerves get the better of you, says the Eastern Association for Surgeons of Trauma (pdf). That’s what can make you seize up, talk too fast, fidget, or do any of the things that viewers will find distracting. Some ways to deal with nerves:
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to remind yourself that you are there because of your expertise. As Joanne Stevens puts it, “you want to be clear in your head that you are not a guest in their territory. You are two professional people meeting to discuss an issue in which they have interest in and they know you have a lot of information about.”