You know your stuff – and now you’ve been asked to talk about it on the radio or television. This will definitely please the family, impress the neighbors and score points with the boss, all at the same time. You’ve seen and heard people interviewed every day, so how hard can it be?
“Tricky” may be a better word for it. When you give a speech or deliver a report, you control many of the variables. When a radio show host or an anchor on a local news program leads the conversation, you control almost nothing.
What if the host mispronounces your name? What if he or she asks a question that’s off your topic and you cannot answer? What if – oh no! – you suddenly sneeze? Even seasoned interviewees sometimes confront on-air dilemmas unrelated to their material, because every live interview can be fraught with unexpected challenges.
In a two-month period, I was interviewed on five television stations and four radio stations about my latest book, Eating St. Louis: The Gateway City’s Unique Food Culture. None of the interviewers had read the book and only half seemed familiar with the material provided in the media release. Ten minutes before one interview, I was shown a list of potential questions, and I was able to point out that two of the questions were irrelevant and one question included a factual error.
For an interviewee, it would be ideal if every radio and television show host provided a list of proposed questions in advance, or asked what questions you would like to answer. Unless you are a regular guest on a show – and sometimes not even then – that’s not how it works. Should you turn down the interview? Of course not.
If you’re going to be on the radio to promote your project or talk about some other topic, here are six survival tips to help you make the most of your moments in the limelight:
1. Get the facts. Most likely, your initial contact will be with a producer or a producer’s assistant. Find out exactly what the interview will cover. Ask how long the interview is expected to last. If you will be on the air for five minutes, you want to make a short list of key points. If the show lasts an hour and listeners may call in, you need to be prepared with some background material, an assessment of the current situation and some comments on the future relative to your topic. Also, ask if you will be part of a panel or whether you will be the only guest, and tailor your remarks accordingly.
Take time a few days before your appearance to listen to or watch the host in action so you are familiar with the format of the show. To avoid embarrassment on the day of your interview, make sure you know the name of the show and how to pronounce the host’s name. You may also want to make a point of pronouncing your name for the host before your segment begins.
2. Make notes on your key points. Once you know the length and the theme of the interview, determine your most important message. “I like to write down my main point in one or two sentences, and then rehearse it aloud as I drive to the interview,” says Ken Haller, a physician and associate professor of pediatrics at the St. Louis University School of Medicine and a frequent media spokesperson on all things pediatric. “You want to get that message out at the top of the interview. Then you can elaborate on it during any remaining time.”
You may want to make a list of questions that you likely will be asked, but don’t count on the interviewer to stick to the topic. The host of a television program recently veered away from the topic of my new book and asked instead three questions about a food-related job I had held six years prior. I gently steered him back to the topic at hand. Sometimes, interviewers start with “Tell us about…”, so you need to be ready with a brief overview that will lead directly to your main point.
3. Never read from your notes. The best on-air interviews are interactive. Take your notes to the station, review them while you wait to be escorted into the studio and then tuck them in your pocket or purse. If you are concerned about remembering a certain statistic, jot that on a Post-it note and keep it close by during a radio interview. If you are on a television show promoting an event, ask the producer’s assistant to put the relevant telephone number and ticket information up on the screen.
To engage viewers and listeners, TV and radio show hosts strive to keep conversations lively. Some do this with rapid-fire questions, some prefer pointed “big picture” conversations and some engage in informal chat. Experienced hosts never ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” They will also not hesitate to cut you off or rephrase a question, especially if you are reading from your notes.
4. Speak in an animated, friendly manner. You want to be ready with short answers, delivered in a conversational tone. “I try to engage with the host as if we were friends, to make the interview sound more like a natural conversation,” says Gail Pennington, television critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For 15 years, Pennington has talked about TV on numerous radio shows, in guest spots that have ranged from one minute to an hour.
Pennington adds, “I always answer promptly, so there is no dead air, even if I have to say ‘That’s a good question’ to give myself a chance to think of a good answer. Also, I talk in short sentences, and pause from time to time so the host can jump back in with a comment or another question.”
5. Be willing to admit what you don’t know. Some years ago, I wrote an article for a regional magazine about unemployment among veterans. A television talk show host invited me on to discuss the topic. “Please don’t ask me numbers,” I said to the host just before we went on the air. “I’m more comfortable with concepts.” The first question was this: “Exactly how many unemployed veterans do we have in this country, in our state and in the metropolitan area?”
I smiled and said that though I could not provide the exact statistics, recent surveys showed that the high percentage of unemployed veterans everywhere indicated a troubling trend. When you are asked to go on the air as an expert, you want to sound confident and informed. Sometimes, that means making a point by answering a question you were not asked. Sometimes, you may have to apologize and simply say, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
6. Be yourself. On television, you want to sit up straight and look directly at the host during the interview. Wear something professional that fits you well so you are comfortable, and keep in mind that colors look better than black or white. On most occasions, you are responsible for your own hair and make-up. On the radio, of course, your appearance is not as important, but if you are nicely dressed, you may make more of an effort to sound professional. Whatever you wear, don’t forget to turn off your cell phone before you go into the studio.
Sometimes, the excitement of going on the air can dry out your throat, or you may be one of those people prone to a nervous cough. Take a water bottle with you for either circumstance, and keep it close. If you do cough or sneeze during the interview, simply apologize and move on.
Before you know it, the interview will be over and you will be back out in the parking lot, ready to turn the cell phone back on and accept congratulatory calls.
Patricia Corrigan, a former newspaper reporter, is a book author and popular public speaker based in St. Louis. Reach her at patriciacorrigan.com.