You can spend all the time in the world curating the perfect message for a media interview, but it can all be wasted if it is poorly delivered. Chances are the audience will remember how you delivered your message over what you said. The impression you create with your tone, presentation and body language can tell a story of its own to the journalist and audience. This is especially the case for television, radio and online interviews but impressions also matter in print media. So in essence how you look and sound matters.
This is not to suggest you should put on an act, be disingenuous or present yourself as somebody you’re not. It’s simply about checking you are saying what needs to be said in an appropriate way, without unwanted distractions or inadvertently leaving the wrong impression.
A company spokesperson delivers a ‘heartfelt’ apology or statement that is perfectly crafted in formal language and read from notes without any warmth of expression or eye contact.
The CEO of a high-profile company fronts a media conference, looking uncomfortable and awkward with their feet planted wide, their head held rigidly and uncertain about what to do with their hands.
An interviewee, who has much expert and inside knowledge to share, breathlessly rushes through their answers, tripping over their words, umming and aahing constantly, and losing their train of thought.
A spokesperson, interviewed via Zoom, appears to be looking at the bottom of their screen the whole time and, to make matters worse, a rather phallic-looking ornament can be seen on the shelf behind them.
An unfortunate camera angle shows the incongruous image of a senior government official, speaking on a serious matter at an online conference, with wings (depicted on an emblem in the background) appearing to sprout from his head.
An interviewee can be seen rolling their eyes and apparently smirking while the interviewer is asking questions.
A spokesperson consistently prefaces their answers with phrases such as: “Look, what I’m saying is …”, “With all due respect …” and “Listen, as I said before …”
A boss turns up to a media opportunity with their rank-and-file workers on a construction site wearing an Armani suit and tie and patent leather brogues.
In each of these examples (versions of which happen all the time), how the interview subject looks or sounds is undermining the message. The good news is these problems can be easily avoided with a little preparation and practice.
I know, I know … this sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how adrenaline and nerves can make the body forget about something as fundamental as taking a breath. I have found some good advice from New Zealand physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith, who runs a breathing disorder clinic in Auckland and stresses the importance of exhaling deeply and pausing after each breath out, rather taking quick, shallow breaths, especially when under stress. One of her suggestions – which works for me – is sticking a green dot to your computer that serves as a reminder to let out a deep breath. This can help you to slow down and think about what you are saying, as well as ease your nerves (which are good things in at least one way because they stop you from ‘winging it’). I’d also advise standing up to do all interviews, even over the phone. This enables your lungs to expand and allows you to take deeper breaths than when you are hunched over a desk.
Be aware of what your eyes are doing, even a small look up, away or down is more pronounced on screen and can be distracting. While it might feel intense you aim to keep an almost unnatural level of eye contact with the interviewer. If you are doing an online interview, focus on the camera spot on your device rather than the interviewer’s image onscreen (or, worse, your own image, which can easily distract you).
OK, for many people that would be anywhere away from journalists and cameras. But, given your media appearance may be required and unavoidable, let’s work with that. Ignore advice such as taking a wide stance to stabilise yourself and not moving your hands. Stand up for interviews (see my advice about breathing above) but be aware that nervous energy can cause you to sway, rock or shift from leg to leg. Even small movements can seem bigger on-screen so try anchoring yourself by putting all your weight on one foot (we’ve helped people conquer this trick in training by placing a $50 note under one shoe). Avoid tightly clasping your hands in front of or behind you. Instead, release them and gesture naturally. As long as your hands never wave around your face, it will allow for natural facial expressions and stop you appearing rigid or frozen. When you feel comfortable, you’ll look more relaxed, which suits you, the camera, journalist and audience.
You might find the journalist’s line of questioning tedious, misguided or just plain stupid, and you might feel you have answered a question already. But, remember, your answers are likely to be edited to fit within stories, so you need to answer each question as if it stands alone. Also remember that the camera is always rolling, as they say, and your looks of annoyance may work against you. Having said that, feel free to laugh, smile and grimace appropriately – it all makes you look human.
I can give you lots of little tips about shirt and tie colours, jewellery and fly-away hair during media training sessions. But the thing to note is, while you should ‘do you’ when it comes to your clothes, you should also check that you are not creating the wrong impression by looking totally out of place or out of touch with the people around you.
Of course, there is a lot more to appropriate body language and presentation than I’ve covered here. We cover the issues relevant to you in our media training sessions, but my overriding piece of advice would always be to practise your presentation, get feedback and deploy suggested techniques in a way that works for you.