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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Prep A TV Interview

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. I’ve done two TV interviews in the past month. The first was with the Russian Television News...

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve done two TV interviews in the past month. The first was with the Russian Television News Network about the United States trade embargo against Cuba. The second – which airs later this week – was with Al Jazeera (English) on The Listening Post, a program about the media. (We talked about Tony Blair and George W. Bush’s memoirs – watch it here – the segment begins around 12:20.)

After just two brief TV appearances – (and by brief, I mean brief…if you blink, you’ll miss me on the Russian one), I would hardly call myself an expert on media appearances. I should also note that both of these interviews were done in my own home – one on Skype, and one in my living room – so they were less anxiety-inducing than the full-on studio interview.

Still, I did learn a lot from these two experiences, and while those lessons are fresh, I thought that I’d share them:

1. Pick your outfit out beforehand. One of the great joys of being a freelance writer is that you can – should you choose – sit around all days in your pajamas. But that turns out to be a bit of a liability when you need to sound like an authority on something. Before moving to London four years ago, I either tossed out or placed in storage most of my proper, authority-conferring work suits. So when it came time for the interview in my living room, I really didn’t have much to go on. As a result, I spent a lot of last-minute energy – when I should have been thinking Big Thoughts (capital B, capital T) – trying to see if I could still squeeze into a slate grey jacket I bought on impulse last year (thinking that some day I might be called upon to have Big Thoughts.) Turns out that I could – and I threw on a set of pearls to add that je ne sais quoi element of gravitas. But the point is that I could have saved myself a lot of angst if I’d done all of this the night before.

2. Have some sound bites ready, but don’t try to memorize. Or, as Urban Muse puts it, prepare, but don’t over-prepare. I learned this lesson during the Cuba interview. Earlier in the summer – (which is presumably why Russian Television contacted me to do this) – I’d written a piece for Politics Daily about why it was time to lift the Cuba embargo. The piece contained all sorts of data, which was a terrific way to back up my arguments. But in preparing for the interview, I felt like I needed to have mastered ALL of that data, rather than just selectively picking out a few key sound bites to back up my points. Turns out, you don’t. Trying to remember obscure pieces of data just makes you nervous, and you don’t want to look nervous on camera. It’s much better to just choose a few big ideas and go with those. People can look up the data themselves.

3. Be sure to give them your title before you start. If you are working for a publication/news outlet/company/university and want that affiliation to be mentioned on air, be sure that you do this up front. Never assume that whoever is interviewing you will know how to identify you, especially if you publish under multiple names. They won’t. This is such an easy thing to fix and yet, so easy to miss. Let it be the very first thing you utter.

4. Remind yourself to slow down. I actually learned this when I worked in radio. The very, very last thing I’d do before I read a commentary on air was to remind myself to slow down. In fact, I’d write the words “SLOW” at the top of the script, just in case I forgot. The same goes for television. When you’re nervous, you tend naturally to speed up. So unless you have unnaturally slow speech (and some people do), be sure to take a deep breath right before you begin and slow down. Among other things, it will help you to relax.

5. Remember that it’s OK not to know something. This is an addendum to (2). In the middle of the Tony Blair interview, the presenter asked me a question about something I hadn’t been aware of. I tried to answer it to the best of my ability, but had to confess, ultimately, that I really didn’t know the answer. Turns out, that was perfectly fine. The piece was edited, so they just left that bit out and focused elsewhere. Of course, had this been a live talk show, that might have been problematic. But even then, I think you look far better admitting when you don’t know something (and showing what you do know) than faking it. Tough lesson for a control freak, but there it is.

How about you? Have you ever been on television and if so, what did you learn?

Image: NTV7’s The Breakfast Show – Attentive by The Instant Classic via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Patricia December 2, 2010 at 5:27 am #

    I could hardly stop laughing after the pj’s comment. Not that I have ever been or TV or will be in the future, but I made it a rule when I decided to work at home to get dressed – nicely everyday.

    It helps me take myself seriously. Though when I am inspired in the middle of the night I do write in PJs then :)
    Oh you made me laugh until my sides hurt Thank you

  2. delialloyd December 2, 2010 at 7:35 am #

    @Patricia=glad it made you smile. that makes *me* smile!

  3. Shelley December 2, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    I’m never gonna be happy with how I look, so just get over it. Even if you think the camera and the mic are turned off, they aren’t necessarily, so don’t assume anything. Sometimes they ask the tricky questions when your guard is down. I learned to look serious and not smile as much as I normally would. I was talking about serious issues (public health) and though I might want the interviewer to like me, it’s more important that the public think I took their health seriously. If possible, agree in advance what you can’t discuss. I had to maintain patient confidentiality and sometimes the interviewer wanted more information than I was prepared to give. I’d forgotten how scary/fun TV interviews were. When I talked about the importance of washing hands after going to the bathroom, my step-son, seeing me say it on TV finally got the message!

  4. delialloyd December 2, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    oh great point, @shelley-I got some sample questions in advance on the second interview and it was hugely helpful!

  5. Hilary December 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi Delia .. the radio was bad enough .. but I learnt – a tiny bit .. the tv would break!!

    Great read .. we never know when we’ll be required to turn out & PJs not a good idea .. nor sans that layer of make up!! Cheers Hilary

  6. GingerR December 4, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    I enjoy reading the “Politics of Style” blog. She dissects television appearances.

    • delialloyd December 6, 2010 at 10:54 am #

      thanks, @gingerR. haven’t seen it and will take a look.

  7. Daryl Boylan December 5, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    TV is. . .well, TV & looks do matter quite a bit. The pearls were clearly the frosting on the cake.
    No idea why I never caught your piece on Cuba before, but it is first-rate. Alas. the incoming Congress sounds like the last group on earth to be able to listen to common sense.

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