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TV Interview Tips
Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton
We’ve all been there—given the best interview of our lives, smiling proudly on the way home, telling people to catch us on the 10 pm news. We savor that victorious moment, the one where we finally won a game of us versus them. It’s a nice feeling…until the broadcast airs. That’s when we see what everyone else sees, and it’s not pretty. Next to the make-up wearing, hair-sprayed professional camera greeters, we tend to resemble either the deer in the headlights or that guy digging through what’s left of his mobile home after the tornado, declaring, “It sounded like a freight train.”
The sad fact with TV news is that it really doesn’t matter what you say—it’s how you say and how you look saying it. TV is a visual medium, and the majority of people who are watching the news at home are doing other things, eating dinner, riding the stationary bicycle, getting ready for bed, putting kids to sleep, etc. So, they may not actually hear what you have to say. But they can sure form an opinion of you in that distracted minute they see you.
You have a very short, but very influential, time on camera, and it is up to you to make the most of that time. You need to take steps to make sure what you say does not get ignored because you looked odd or sounded strange. Looking good goes beyond wearing a squared-away uniform and cleaning your teeth. Media savvy also comes into play.
Talk Directly to the Reporter
Don’t look right at the camera. Talk to the reporter. The reporter will usually stand off to the side of the camera and tell you not to look at the camera, which is hard not to look at, especially if it’s got one of those blinking, red lights screaming, “Look at me!” But avoid looking at it. If you look and talk straight into the lens, you will scare people at home when your big talking head descends upon their living room like a greedy televangelist. Media professionals suggest looking at the reporter’s eye that is closest to the camera and focusing on it. Talk to that eye, and the result is that you’re talking to the people at home but without making them uncomfortable.
If you’re in a chair, don’t rock or swivel. If you’re standing, do not sway. Movement on your part will make the TV viewers seasick. Couple that with staring straight into the camera, and you’re got a contender for an “outtakes real.”
Consider Your Seating
Avoid overstuffed chairs because you sink in and look dwarfed. They also allow you to be too comfortable, which is never good during an interview. In an interview, try to remember that you are, essentially, the suspect being questioned. When seated, sit up and lean forward—command the authority that you have.
If you wear eyeglasses, keep them on. Out of vanity, people tend to remove glasses when any type of camera is nearby. The end result is that you don’t look like you in the picture. Or you’re squinting. Or you’ve got deep indentations on the side of your nose. Or you’ve got raccoon eyes and tan lines on the side of your head. Or your hair is permanently creased above the ears. Glasses have come a long way and are usually glare-resistant and unobtrusive. Keep ’em on.
Lose the Jargon
In addition to how you look, actually sounding like a TV professional is hard for law enforcement officers, primarily because it goes against the grain of everything we normally do. But if you make the effort, you’ll have stellar interviews and your real message will be less likely left on the cutting room floor.
So lose the jargon. This is also known as “cop speak” and either sounds like an official report or is full of codes. Remember, when you’re talking to a reporter, you’re really talking to the average resident who probably doesn’t understand the jargon. For example, you did not “advise” anyone, you “told” them. Officers did not “exit the vehicle,” they “got out of the car.” They were not “en route to the location,” they were “on their way to (insert place here).” They did not “make contact with the subject,” they “found the man and spoke with him.” For the sake of Joe Sixpack and his wife, please talk like a person.
A soundbite is a 20 to 30 second “clip” of voice that can be said all in one breath. It can either be informative or it can be your worst nightmare. Think of a former president denying relations with an intern. Can you remember what he said? Exactly. That’s an example of nightmare soundbite being played over and over.
Soundbites are what reporters and editors are looking for when they review the tape back at the station. Sometimes, the reporter who interviewed you is not even in the editing bay and has no input in what gets used in the story.
And sometimes, the editor is relying solely on his ear for when to cut the tape, not listening so much for what it is that you’re saying, rather when it is the right time to cut. And this is almost always done under a very tight deadline. So why make the soundbite easy to find and make the editor’s job easier? Because that gives you more control over what the viewers hear you say.
The basic rule for a soundbite is simple. What you can say in one breath, or 20 to 30 seconds, is the perfect length. In fact, some editors listen for when they hear you take a breath and then cut. But one of the more in-depth rules is tougher…you have to offer the conclusion first.
Reporters use the “inverted pyramid” style for telling the news, meaning they want the most important things (usually the last thing) first. This style is the antithesis of law enforcement style, which usually relies on the telling of an incident from beginning to end, starting from when notified by dispatch to transporting the subject. So you need to practice. It’s a good idea to write out your main points and then reverse them, using bullets. The last thing then becomes the first bulleted point and can be turned into a perfect soundbite.
As for your bulleted list, keep it in front of you as a cheat sheet. If you hold it below your chest or leave it on the desk, it probably won’t even get in the shot. A cheat sheet helps keep you on track and helps remind you of that inverted pyramid—if the reporters want more information, simply go down your list of reversed information … perfect reporter style and a much better sounding agency head.
Take Your Time
If you get tongue-tied and the interview is being taped, say it again! Tell them you can say it better if you had another take, they’ll give it to you because it will make their jobs easier back at the station.
Similarly, if you say something that’s wrong - correct yourself ASAP. Be firm and restate the correct information. Make sure the reporter understands you misspoke. If it’s being taped, this will usually get caught in editing because your tone of voice will change dramatically. If it’s live, the audience will hear that change, too.
By following these tips, your next TV interview will not only easier for you, but it will also be easier to watch.
Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Jul 2006
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