Reporters, journalists and news media hosts are trained to spot a story and pull on any threads that reveal themselves. If you don't feel comfortable, your discomfort may come off as hostile or disingenuous. Training your interview skills before stepping up to the mic or in front of the camera will ensure a successful media interaction.
Pause to Gather Your Thoughts
Take a few seconds to think about the answer. Not only do rapid responses appear rehearsed, but you might regret an answer you didn't consider. Remember:
- You are not obligated to tell everything you know.
- Pauses always seem longer to you than they do to your audience.
- Understand the value and importance of the "pregnant pause."
- Don't lie or lose your temper.
- Engage your brain before you engage your mouth.
Don't Cut Your Answer Short
A flat yes or no answer ends the conversation and turns the media into adversaries. Answer the question and add a message. For example, if a reporter asks, "Is it true recruiting is getting easier?" A good response would be, "There's been a significant improvement in the recruiting areas. We continue to fill all of our authorized positions with very qualified people. Last year, the Air Force met 100 percent of its recruiting goal."
The same goes for "no comment," which tends to imply you're hiding something. If you don't know the answer, it's okay to say, "I don't know but I can get back to you with that information." Likewise, if you can't answer the question for security reasons, it's perfectly acceptable to say so. Both situations allow you to pivot to a message.
Give Messages a One-Two Punch
Radio and television media look for 15-second sound bites and scrap the remainder of the interview. Be prepared with as many good clips as possible and practice working them into the interview.
Put the important information at the beginning of the interview. State the key messages and then restate them. Repetition reinforces the messages, and if time runs out, your key points have come through. Be sure to restate or incorporate the question into your answer so the sound bite can stand alone. For example, the reporter could ask, "What makes XYZ so state-of-the-art?" In return, you can reply, "XYZ is a top-of-the-line piece of equipment as it enhances our warfighting capabilities with ABC" or "XYZ is the state of the art because it does ABC."
In a casual conversation, it would have been natural just to reply, "It does ABC." However, that type of quote would need an introduction from the reporter as the topic is not specifically named. Without that extra bit, the audience doesn't know you are talking about XYZ.
Once you answer a reporter's question fully and accurately, it is alright to remain silent. It's not your responsibility to "feed the microphone."
Aim with Accuracy & Stick to the Facts
Always respond honestly, factually and reflective of policy. If a reporter asks a "what if" question, you may say, "We don't speculate or opine about ... but what I can tell you is ..." This allows you to bridge to key information. If a reporter asks a question about someone else's area of expertise, refer them to public affairs and get an answer as soon as possible.
Credibility is Your Coin
Use your knowledge and experience to establish personal credibility. If you can say, "I've flown the plane," "During my 15 years as a dedicated crew chief," or "I've talked to the men and women using the technology," then do so.
Take the opportunity to reinforce a past success. "As the public saw in 2020 during the XYZ mission, ABC technology helped improve XYZ."
Present a positive attitude and talk from the perspective of the public's interest, not from the military's interest. Tell the audience how the nation benefits, not what the military stands to gain.
Avoid acronyms, jargon or technical terms.
Show Respect Non-Verbally
Ensure facial expressions and hand gestures are appropriate to the words and seriousness of the issue. Many people talk with their hands; learn to keep your hands close to your body, at belly button level, elbows back. You will find you can still gesture, but without looking like you are swatting bugs in the air.
Concentrate on the interviewer and maintain eye contact. Eye contact conveys sincerity, conviction and enthusiasm. Some people smile out of discomfort or nervousness. It's not necessary to be serious at all times, but use caution not to smile or nod at the wrong time when discussing an accident or serious incident. You may feel comfortable using natural hand gestures for emphasis but don't overdo it. Watch out for nervous habits such as tapping feet, drumming fingers, playing with pens, etc.
Recording a mock interview is probably one of the best ways to gain direct, instantaneous and helpful feedback for an on-camera interview. When people see themselves on video, they become much more aware of what they are doing right and what they need to improve.
The balance of the audience's impression depends on voice, face, uniform and the personal charm and credibility you bring to the interview.
Take a Ready Stance
If you're standing, assume a stable, comfortable position facing the interviewer at an angle to the camera. Stand tall with one foot slightly back, resting most of the weight on your back foot. Don't sit in a chair that rocks or swivels; it's too easy to slouch, rock back and forth, swivel, twitch or fidget.
Don't lean too far back in your chair. It creates a "too casual" impression to the viewer and, depending on the chair, can make you appear sunken or smaller. Relax and lean slightly forward, with your shoulder(s) aligned with the interviewer to convey that you are both interested and involved. Keep your legs just at or outside of shoulder width, hands resting on your lap
Don't sit too far forward, directly on the edge of your chair, as that can come across as being terse. Aim for that sweet spot toward the front edge of the chair that maintains good posture and improves the airflow to the diaphragm.
Square Up Before You Step In
If you have a hearing problem, difficulty understanding, nervousness or a physical reason for desiring one profile over another, make this known to the program's producer in advance.
Do not wear sunglasses or tinted/ photo-gray glasses. If you decide not to wear glasses during the interview, remove them about 20 minutes before the interview to allow your eyes to adjust.
Once you're wired up, avoid touching or breathing into the mic and keep the cord hidden. During a "mic check," you may say your name, rank, duty title and the essential points you want the audience to understand. Don't forget it's a hot mic; anything you say following the interview can be "on the record." Remembering that you're still "on" can save everyone from an embarrassing situation.
Time is Your Sensei
To become a media master, you will need to practice and sharpen your interview skills. Review your previous interviews and notice where your presentation overshadowed the facts and messages. With practice and attention, your time in front of the media/press will become effortless.