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 was with Al Jazeera (English) on "The Listening Post," a program about the media. (We talked about Tony Blair's and George W. Bush's respective 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, the other 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 day 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, 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. It turns out that 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. These are 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?
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