how to prepare for an interview

Mastering the Media

by Paul Strikwerda in Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion Comments Off on Mastering the Media

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 12.09.30 PMIn the first installment of this mini media training, I wrote about what piques the interest of the press. We talked about the fact that landing an interview is not a goal in and of itself, but a means to an end. Then we discussed the importance of crafting a core message.

Part 2 was all about dealing with journalists and how to handle tricky questions. At this point you might think you’re ready for reporters who will happily hold your feet to the fire.

Not so fast. You might get burned!

First, let me ask you this:

Should you always say YES to every interview request?

Most people are flattered when the media shows interest. Why waste a good opportunity to generate some publicity, right? Well, that remains to be seen.

Compare an interview request to a job offer. Would you take any offer that comes your way, before even knowing what it’s about and whether or not you can handle it? I certainly hope not. In this phase, you need to be the one asking the questions. It shows you’re a pro.

Here’s what you minimally need to know and why:

How did they hear about you?

This should give you an idea of why they want to talk to you in the first place. Secondly, it tells you something about the effectiveness of your media campaign. Did they get your press release? Were they following you on Twitter? Have they read your blog? Did someone recommend you?

Is the interview for radio or television? Will it appear online or in print?

A different medium requires a different strategy and preparation.

We live in the age of the iPad and enriched, mixed media. Just because they’re booking you for a radio program, doesn’t mean you won’t be on television. Some stations broadcast their radio shows live on TV during the day. Newspapers have online editions that feature video.

Find out beforehand what the deal is. You don’t want to be dressed for comfort in a sloppy T-shirt and an old pair of jeans when a photographer shows up for a glamour shoot you forgot to ask about.

Which network, program, show, website, paper or magazine?

If you know the outlet, do you wish to be associated with it? Does the network or magazine have a particular political or religious affiliation? Are you comfortable with that? Are you hoping to reach a new audience? Are you ready to defend your views?

A lawyer appeared on what he thought would be a show about the legal aspects of divorce. He ended up being grilled by a minister-turned-radio host about why he was “helping the devil break up marriages.”

A freelance writer was invited to talk about her novel featuring two gay characters. Ninety percent of the questions were about her personal life and views on same sex marriage. She left the studio saying: “I wish I had known. Why didn’t anybody tell me this wasn’t going to be about my book?”

Which segment of the program/show or which section in the paper will you appear in?

A professional photographer had just opened a new studio in town. A reporter stopped by and asked a few questions. To his dismay, the photographer found his interview under the “Hobby” section of the local paper.

A voice-over talent gave an interview about his work and discovered his story in the business section under the heading: “Ten easy ways to make money in a bad economy.”

If you’ve never heard of the show, site or paper that has requested an interview, ask for a detailed description and do your own research.

It’s simple: watch the show, read the paper and visit the website to see what you’re getting yourself into. Good journalists do their homework, so why shouldn’t you?

Don’t complain afterwards that you didn’t know what was waiting for you. Nobody will ever force you to say “yes” to an interview (unless it’s in your contract).

Ask about the audience/readers and its reach: numbers, demographics and distribution.

Being interviewed often means walking a fine line between explaining something in terms most people will understand, without treating them like toddlers. There’s no need to dumb your story down, but you don’t want to go over people’s heads either.

I’m sure you’ve seen experts that seem to live in their own little bubble, totally unaware of the fact that the rest of the world has no clue what they’re talking about. They’re using jargon without realizing it is jargon, or abbreviations no one’s ever heard of.

For my non-voice-over friends, what do you think the following means:

“As I was hooking my shotgun up to my pre, I noticed that I shouldn’t speak off-axis because of the tight pick-up pattern this Sennheiser has. One of my SaVoA friends had warned me about it.”

I beg your pardon?

Can you speak English please?

Now, had this been an interview for a voice-over in crowd, you’d probably get away with it, although too many people still don’t know what SaVoA stands for. As for the rest of the world… you would have lost your listeners in the first five seconds and they’re already surfing for a better channel.

The key is to avoid technical language and to customize your content. If you do that, the audience will get the feeling that you’re talking directly to them (which is what you should be doing anyway). It’s a way to create rapport.

The following question is an interviewer’s favorite:

“Can you give me an example?”

This is a perfect opportunity to customize your content because you can pick something your audience can relate to.

Let’s assume you design websites and you’d love to get some more clients. The answer to the question: “So, what kinds of websites have you designed?” depends on your audience.

If you’re doing a show about business, you’ll highlight your corporate sites. If the audience is more artsy, you’ll pick sites you’ve designed for various artists.

Is the interview taped or live?

If you’re not familiar with differences in format, you might say: “It shouldn’t really matter. My story is my story.”

Those who have experienced the stress of a live radio or television broadcast know otherwise.

Personally, I love live. It’s a very different energy. People are on the edge of their seats, creating carefully orchestrated spontaneity. Time is always ticking. Every minute needs to be accounted for.

“We have 19 seconds till the end of the commercial break. Everybody stand by. We’re live in three, two, one….”

Live is exciting. Live can be stressful. What if you mess up? Forget retakes!

Some people believe you have less control when you’re going live. I disagree. Why? Because live cannot be edited.

When you’re on, you’re on, and you can take charge of the airwaves. If you don’t like where the interview is going, build a bridge (see part 2) and get to your core message as soon as you can.

Every minute you spend on what you want to say, means less time for what the interviewer wants to hear (unless you’re on the same page). At some point he’ll run out of time. The shorter the interview, the more important this becomes.

Compare this to the long, prerecorded interview. If your Grand Inquisitor thinks you’re not giving him a straight answer, he’ll simply go back to the question until you’ve answered it to his satisfaction. If he doesn’t like what he hears, he can cut it or shorten it, citing editorial freedom. He can summarize your position in his words, not yours.

Here’s the flip side of that coin. Because you’re not live, you can stop the tape at any time. If you don’t like the answer you’ve just given, you can start over. Do you need to look up some info? Go ahead.

As a reporter, I often had to ask people to pick it up from the start because they had given me a lengthy answer and I only had time for a soundbite.

If you’re new at this, see if you can do your first interviews semi-live. Just go for it it as if you’re on the air, even though it’s prerecorded. It’s good practice. If you manage to do everything in one take, you’re done. If you happen to get stuck, you just pick it up from there.

How long is the actual interview? How much air time do I get?

These are two very different things. Just because you have been recording for an hour, doesn’t mean you’ll be on the air for an hour. I hate to say it, but most people aren’t that interesting and most interviewers aren’t that good. On top of that, most of us are not interested in listening to the same person go on and on and on for sixty minutes.

We’ve been conditioned to the never-ending interruption of the commercial break. Attention spans are getting shorter. We have too much to do and not enough time. I’m surprised you’re still reading this!

If the magic doesn’t happen in the first sixty seconds, we move on, unless what we read, see or hear really speaks to us.

If you have trouble getting to the point in real life, you’ll be in trouble during an interview when the pressure’s on. Don’t worry. These things can be fixed. That’s why media trainers make a very decent living.

So, find out how much time you have to get your message across and prepare for your interview using the accordion model. An accordion expands and contracts. Think of what you want to talk about as an accordion.

If you have less time, you use the short version, but always be ready to expand. Let’s say you expect to be on air for five minutes. What if the next guest gets stuck in traffic and can’t make it to the studio? All of a sudden you’ve doubled your time. Make sure you don’t run out of material!

Unfortunately, the opposite is true too. You were promised a four-minute segment and then some breaking news cuts your time in half. In that case you better be ready to cut to the chase!

By the way, don’t ever trust your sense of timing. In my media trainings I always give my students thirty seconds to introduce themselves and mention one interesting fact we should know about them. Their intro is timed. Some people go on for three minutes before I cut them off and then they tell me: “Wow… that was really thirty seconds? It went by so fast!”

What are your questions?

I saved the most obvious for last because we tend to overlook the obvious. I have interviewed thousands of people and I can’t tell you how many of them simply said YES to my interview request, not knowing what I wanted to ask them. It has to do with human nature.

Deep down inside we all long for attention and acknowledgement; for someone who truly listens. Getting in the papers, on radio or on TV must mean we matter!

But if you don’t know what they want to know, how do you know you want to be on their show?


Remember what I said in part one? The biggest beginner’s mistake is to underestimate what it takes to be interviewed. This is not some normal conversation. It’s more of a purposeful presentation disguised as a normal conversation…. with possibly millions of people watching over your shoulder.

So, have you thought about how to present yourself on television? Should you just be yourself or get all dressed up for the occasion?

Next time we’ll talk about the importance of image!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Managing Your Message

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 9 Comments

This is part 2 of Face the Press without Stress. You can read the 1st part by clicking here.

“That guy was a complete idiot,” said one of my friends, a classical pianist. He had just been interviewed by a major newspaper about his latest CD, and he was not a happy camper. Steam was coming out of his nostrils.

“This so-called journalist knew absolutely nothing about music,” he fumed. “He asked the most basic questions and I don’t think he could tell the difference between a Steinway and a Clavinova. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to care. Within ten minutes he was off to his next assignment, leaving me with that bloody photographer.”

“I’m going to write to his paper,” he continued angrily. “Next time they should send someone who knows what he’s doing, instead of wasting my time with a nitwit.”

The following day I opened the paper, hoping to find the interview. It was easy to spot. It featured a blown-up photo of my friend staring straight into the camera, looking perpetually peeved. Would anyone buy a CD from a guy who looked that annoyed, I wondered? Pictures are powerful, and first impressions can become lasting impressions in a split-second. Then I read the interview.

What I had feared, had happened: my friend -who really is a wonderful and talented artist- came across as an arrogant bastard. Had I not known him personally, I would have nominated him for the Most Arrogant Artist of the Year Award. One thing was certain: this story wasn’t going to sell a whole lot of CD’s.

When we talked about the fiasco afterwards, I told him:

“I know you’re weren’t happy with the journalist. Keep one thing in mind. You and I are lucky. We have chosen a profession we’re passionate about. We pour our heart and soul into our work. Most people -including your reporter- don’t have that privilege. For them their job is just their job. Besides…

Journalists aren’t paid to care. They’re paid to share.

In fact, in order to tell a story objectively, they need to keep a professional distance. A photographer wouldn’t be able to do his job if he’d stop and help every hungry child in front of his lens. A political reporter wouldn’t be ready to ask penetrating questions if he were afraid to hurt the fragile ego of the person he was interviewing.

Just as it’s better for a surgeon not to get emotionally attached to the opened up patient in the operating theater, reporters must dissociate themselves from their stories and subjects. It’s nothing personal. Remember this:

It isn’t a journalist’s job to be knowledgeable or interested. It is your job to be informed and interesting.

The expert reporter is an endangered species. Dwindling advertising revenues means cutbacks in the newsroom. There are fewer people to cover more stories. Specialists have become generalists in order to survive. There is not enough time for proper research, and almost no budget for in-depth analysis or investigative reporting.

If you’re lucky, your next interview could be conducted by someone who loves what you do for a living, but don’t be surprised if that person is more into heavy metal or chess. Ultimately, that shouldn’t matter. A good story is a good story and you, my friend, have to hand it to him (or her). Here’s why.

You’re not talking to the journalist. You’re reaching out to the audience.

Just as you’re not telling your story to a microphone and you’re not posing to make the camera happy, an interviewer is merely a conduit. He represents all the readers, viewers and listeners you’re really talking to, when you’re being interviewed.

In a strange way, it’s better for you if he doesn’t seem to be too interested or knowledgeable, because most people scanning the pages or flipping the channels aren’t either. But if you manage to draw that interviewer into your story, chances are the audience will follow. Unfortunately, it cuts both ways.

So, no matter how obnoxious and superficial your interviewer may seem, always remember whom you’re talking to. A morning show host might ask basic questions because that’s all his viewers want to know. He might not even listen to your answer because he’s getting instructions in his ear prompter. That’s why it’s up to you to…

Take charge and get your message across in spite of the interviewer.

If you don’t remember everything I’m telling you, please remember this point. Too many people take on a passive role when being interviewed. They prepare to answer questions they think are interesting and essential, and complain afterwards that those questions were never asked. Or worse, they don’t prepare at all and just go with the flow.

You’re not a victim. You have a say in what you put out into the world. Literally. And you won’t get many chances to reach so many people at once, so you better make the most of it

Think about it this way. You know infinitely more about the subject than your interviewer ever will. If you’d only stick to what your interviewer knows or wants to know, you’ll never get beyond the surface. Here’s what you do to manage your message.

Use questions as a springboard to tell what needs to be told.

Often, reporters will throw something at you and it’s not what you want to talk about. The trick is to build a bridge between what’s being asked and what you really want to say.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m being interviewed about my voice-over business. Here’s the question:

“Do you think celebrities doing voice-overs are spoiling it for the rest of you?”

Here’s one way to respond:

“Not really. There’s plenty of work for everyone. The author of my latest audio book chose my voice because I am not a celebrity.”

You see how that works? In two sentences you have shifted the focus from talking about other people to talking about your new book. Here are a few more bridges.

That’s an interesting observation. Before I get that, there’s something you need to know…”

“Thanks for bringing that up. Here’s what’s happening…”

“I understand where you’re coming from. I get that question all the time. What many people don’t realize is…”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you entirely evade the issue at hand like a seasoned politician. I recommend you use the issue to redirect the conversation to get your point across. If you don’t do that, you could spend an entire segment talking about Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman instead of promoting your new project.

You don’t have to agree with or pretend to understand everything the interviewer is saying.

That’s another sign of a passive attitude. You can’t answer a question you don’t really understand. Yet, because some people are easily intimidated by members of the press, they hate to admit that they have no clue what the interviewer is asking. To make matters worse, they start imagining what the interviewer could have meant and start answering that.

It’s okay to ask:

“Could you repeat the question, please? I didn’t quite get that.”

Beware of overt or covert assumptions.

As we’ve seen in the question about celebrities, interviewers often won’t ask a straight question but begin with a statement. A few examples:

“It is a well-know fact that people make a lot of money doing voice-overs. Now, let me ask you this…”

“Many believe this is easy money, and I’d like to know how you got into this business.”

“We all know that voice-overs can make a comfortable living, and what I am interested in is…”

It’s very tempting to answer the question following the statement, but before you do, ask yourself if you agree with the assumption. If you don’t, you must challenge it before you answer the question. Otherwise the audience is left with the impression that you concur. Here’s another one.

Watch out for suggestive, leading questions.

In order to win the ratings war, editors and producers all over the world are searching for the extraordinary, the grotesque, the shocking and the violent. The tens of thousands of planes that take off and land safely every day are not news, but the one that crashes is.

Journalists are trained to look for controversy and if there is none, to push the envelope and stir the pot. Suggestive questions are like a loaded weapon.

Think of a question as a laser beam, zooming in on a very small area. If it’s specific, it will direct your thoughts into one direction, excluding everything else. What do the following questions require you to focus on?

“How bad are things really in your business?

Sometimes things can get really nasty, don’t they? Give me an example.”

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“What do you dislike more than anything else?”

“Tell me about your client from hell.”

Take a deep breath before you answer those questions, and ask yourself: Do I really want to go there? Do I want to dwell on the negative or highlight the positive?

How’s this for an answer:

“No matter what kind of work you do, there are always things that are not so great and there are things that totally make your day. As a matter of fact, one of my clients called me yesterday…” and then you share a positive story.

You might not control the question, but you can always control the answer!

Look out for false choices and either/or scenarios.

News outlets often aim for the biggest market share to please the sponsors, and therefore cater to the lowest common denominator. In order to appeal to the army of couch potatoes that wants to be entertained instead of informed, simplification is the name of the game. Complicated stories are broken up into bite-sized pieces even my pet gerbil can digest. Thus, reality becomes a caricature.

A favorite technique is to reduce a colorful, complex world to a juxtaposition of right and wrong and black and white. Some networks have turned that into a dubious art form. But as you very well know, there usually are no easy answers. Watch the political shows and wait for it to happen:

“Senator, with all due respect: Do you want to socialize health care or leave it up to the American people to choose their own insurance plan?”

“Are you in favor of big government, or do you want to reduce Washington’s bureaucracy?”

“Should we bomb Iran or increase sanctions?”

“Please answer my next question with a simple yes or no.”

Let’s be clear. These aren’t questions. They are traps; false choices based on either/or scenarios. Remember, if you choose to answer the question as such, you implicitly agree with the options presented to you. Are you sure you want to go there?

If an interviewer tries to drag me into an is-it-this-or-that scenario, I often answer with YES. But usually, it isn’t A or B. Why can’t it be C or D or both? Watch this:

Interviewer: “As a voice-over, what do you enjoy doing most: audio books or commercials?”

You: “To tell you the truth, I love voicing video games. I think we have a clip of the one I just finished. I had such a blast creating the character of….”

You’re not falling for this false dilemma, and with the bridge technique, you use the question as a springboard to talk about things that are on your agenda. I do it all the time and I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

Is this something I am naturally good at or did I need training? (watch the question…)

Well, it’s a bit of both I guess, but it certainly helps to have been on the other side of the mic for many years. I know a few tricks of the trade, and I have lots more to share with you. So, if you’re up for it, I’ll continue our conversation next week.

Here’s are some of the things I’ll talk about: What do you need to know before the interview? Do you prepare differently for a taped and a live interview?

What do you think?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice