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The Esquire Guy's Guide to Media Interviews

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The Esquire Guy's Guide to Media Interviews
image credit: Illustrations by Chris Philpot

First, a few things that people who've done broadcast interviews know: It's more casual than you think it will be. It will be over way faster than you think it will be. And after the interview airs, people will get in touch with you--people you haven't heard from for some time. Also, it's kind of a big deal. You and your company are better off for having done it. A broadcast interview is like minor surgery--but without the recovery time.

The mistake people often make when preparing for an interview is thinking about how to talk to an audience instead of thinking about how to talk to a single person. If you're consciously thinking about the audience, then your attention is misguided. The audience indirectly affects the tenor of the conversation, of course, and the whole thing wouldn't be happening if it weren't for the audience, but the audience should be dismissed.

The only person to think about is the interviewer. And your interaction with the interviewer--your respect for the person, your smiling and not openly mocking the person's ignorance--is more of a determining factor for success than any other.

Have a Conversation
"With our program, you're on it because we want you to be on it," says Robin Young, host of Here & Now, a daily show on Boston's NPR news station, WBUR. "Be conscious of that. It's not as if you have to push something."

There's a lot of indirect advice in what she's saying. Because, one, you really don't have to work. And two, you are the most interesting person in the world. It helps to think of yourself as the most interesting person in the world, because if you do, that's how you'll be treated. If the interviewer isn't treating you like the most interesting person in the world, then the interviewer isn't doing a good job. What makes for a good interview--on both sides--is focus and engagement.

The best part about being the most interesting person in the world is that the bar is set incredibly low. Whatever comes out of your mouth is going to be great. It's hard to suck at being interviewed, is what we're saying. You almost have to willfully suck. Because all you have to do is talk.

Talking is a tricky thing, of course. Especially when the stakes are high. But we know how to do it. The key to doing it on camera or over the radio: Talk with the person across from you and forget about the many other people listening to you. Sit up straight and lean forward slightly. You want to seem as interested in the questions as you are in your own answers. You want to seem like you love the sound of the interviewer's voice. You want to respond as if the interviewer is highly intelligent but isn't particularly aware of you or what you do. You want to seem like you're on a great first date, now that we think about it.

Mainly you want to listen, which is the most important part of talking. Listening forces you to allow the interviewer to control the conversation. And you have to cede control. Young says to speak not as if you're selling something, but as if you're trying to make people understand something: "You may be an entrepreneur when you're coming on the air, but in real life you also play the role of the consumer. So as a consumer, what would you want to hear?"

What a consumer wants to hear is civility and authority and jargon-free wisdom. Confidence and effortlessness. Easy--unless you or what you're representing is in a little trouble.

The Art of the Difficult Message
Everything up to now has assumed you're going to be interviewed in friendly territory. But what if you're being called upon to answer uncomfortable questions? What if you're being asked to defend certain practices? What if you're being taken to task? What if you are effectively the spokesperson for a huge mess?

"If something is bad, it's bad," says Om Malik, founder of San Francisco-based technology and media company GigaOm. "Instead of trying to spin it too much, just answer the questions. People are scared to speak the truth."

Media trainers will say, "Answer the question you wish they asked." Politicians do this. It's an interesting move* because it makes you seem self-possessed and stupid at the same time. Rule: If you're asked a question, you have to answer it. You might answer it with an "I don't know" or an "I can't tell you" or some other lame, ready-made answer, but you need to answer the question.

It's easy for an audience to detect fear and discomfort and manipulation. And once these are detected, your message becomes irrelevant. So when the circumstances are tricky, do the same thing you'd do under better circumstances: Listen, smile and sound authoritative. Also--and this is underrated--sound humble. (There is almost no business situation in which this formula does not work.)

Being interviewed is talking. And talking is easy--fun, even--when you know what you're talking about. Fortunately for your company--and the interviewer and the audience and the people waiting to congratulate you and your own sense of pride--you do.

*Another interesting move? The "pivot"--where you sort of answer the question, then construct a verbal bridge to the thing that you really want to talk about. That move has been rendered moot by the thousands of pundits and politicians who practice it every day, over and over again. It's a transparent, tired, greedy technique. Leave the pivot to the basketball players and the ballroom dancers.

Key Technical Matters
After asking the producer what the interviewer is going to ask you and rehearsing possible answers and picking out some clothes to wear, start smiling. And keep smiling until the interview is over. Unless the interview is about a grave subject, smile like you mean it.

Not a hopeful beaming. Not a slight grin. A confident smile--somewhere between a smirk and a simper. (The simper is underrated.)

When you're being interviewed for broadcast, speak slowly. But not too slowly. You want to talk like this. Youdon'twanttotalklikethis. And you don't want to talk like this. And you don't want to talk like this! And, like, you, um, don't want to, like, talk like, um, this.

Stand or sit up straight. And make eye contact. And listen. Really listen. Because you're having a conversation--a stilted one, but a conversation nonetheless.

Have details ready. An answer isn't interesting unless it involves details.

Never interrupt an interviewer. You'll seem impatient and nervous.

Never stare down an interviewer. You'll seem scary and weird.

Wait a half beat before answering a question. You'll seem measured and authoritative. Anything longer than that and you'll seem confused and lonely.

For the purposes of your time together, the interviewer is your friend. The interviewer might surprise you with questions you hadn't prepared for, but the interviewer is your friend. The interviewer might belittle you and make you feel awful, but the interviewer is your friend. The interviewer might punch you in the stomach, but the interviewer is your friend--and also a psychopath. But still, your friend.

And remember that your performance is always going 30 percent less than however you think it's going. If you think it's awkward, it's 30 percent less awkward than you think. If you think it's fascinating, it's 30 percent less fascinating than you think. If you think it's boring, it's 30 percent less boring than you think. If you think it was a total disaster, it wasn't.

If you said during the interview, "This is a total disaster," then it probably was a disaster.

But 30 percent less than you think.

As long as you're smiling.

 

Things You Should Never* Say During An Interview

It all started waaaay
back in ...
Like ...
Um.
Ya know?
Like, um, ya know?
Is this thing on?
Hold up. I'd like to do a shout-out to ...
I have no idea what the answer is.
Who do you think you are?
Would you like to have dinner sometime?
Just who do you think you are?
You know how when you have a word on the tip of your tongue? That's happening to me right now.
Why are you being so mean to me?
"I can't be cool. I can't be laid-back. Something happened, and I want to celebrate it." --Tom Cruise to Oprah
Stop staring.
If you'll allow me to read a passage from my new book entitled …
This interview is over.
*or almost never

Ross McCammon is an articles editor at Esquire magazine. To learn more about Esquire and to subscribe, go to esquire.com.

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