Nervous to Give Media Interviews? Try This Master Class

(This interview was originally published in The Tyee.)

By Jeanette Ageson

James Boothroyd's briskly paced, practical session will help you understand the challenges, prepare for the worst, and nail your sound-bites.

Now that the smoke has cleared from the election, journalists are taking the opportunity to look back and dissect the campaigns. How exactly did the Liberals orchestrate such a stunning comeback from third place? Was the niqab really the reason why the NDP lost support in Quebec? What in God's name was Stephen Harper thinking when he cozied up to the Ford brothers in the last week of his campaign?

While we'll never have all the answers, we can still look back at the failed campaigns and pull out some valuable lessons. One point many commentators seem to agree on is that the NDP campaign's attempt to portray Mulcair as a smiley, cuddly leader flopped. While this alone can't explain the implosion of support for the NDP this time around, it certainly didn't help.

"Mulcair in the election campaign often appeared to be uncomfortable, overly careful and overscripted," said communications consultant James Boothroyd. "People who have seen him in the House of Commons know that he can be a terrier -- articulate, quick witted, rough and tough. In the first debate, however, he wore a painful smile, had stiff body language and looked at the camera when answering his opponents, rather than engaging them. The contrast was stark, and people found his performance measured, rational and unpersuasive."

It's a cruel reality that how a campaigner comes across in media appearances can mean the difference between success and failure. And while most of us won't ever experience that level of media scrutiny, many will someday be in the position of giving comment to the media. If that's you, there are some basic principles you need to know to make sure your message gets heard.

Boothroyd, a seasoned communications consultant, will lead a Tyee Master Class on Saturday, Nov. 7, where participants will learn some proven strategies on how to earn media coverage, and how to nail those on-air sound bites. In a one-day session, participants will learn fundamental media relations skills, and get some practice giving interviews while receiving feedback from an experienced professional. 

The class is for managers and directors of non-profit groups and public agencies, citizen-activists and wannabe trouble-makers keen to brush up on their media skills or attract coverage for a cause.

We asked James for his thoughts on what makes or breaks media appearances, and what to expect from his class on Saturday.

The Tyee: What is worse in a TV or radio interview: being too tightly scripted, or rambling off-message?

Boothroyd: Both. Overly scripted interviews (for interviewers as well as interviewees) quickly lose the attention of viewers and listeners, as we easily sense when a person is feeding us prepared lines, in a wooden manner. 

People like to listen to people who think for themselves, and we are more willing to forgive errors when they appear to be coming from somebody who is acting in the moment and committed to a conversation -- somebody who is alive to the moment, taking a measure of risk. 

On the other hand, rambling responses that stray far from one's message can be equally damaging or ineffective. Broadcast media seldom offer us more than a few seconds to convey our ideas, so we need to get them across, support them with evidence, and if necessary repeat them. This does not need to be overly scripted. And one can give an honest answer to a reporter or interviewer, drawing fresh material, something newly come to mind, while remaining on-message.

Consider this scenario: I've never received any media training, have never given a media interview before, but I'm offered a TV interview starting in one hour. What is the number one thing (or top few things) I should do to prepare?

Assuming you have a good reason to be doing the interview (see answer to next question), ask yourself who is my target audience, and what do I need to let them know? How you prepare should then be guided entirely by the answers you come up with. How can I use the medium best to reach my audience? If it's TV, a supper hour news program and you need to tell 14 to 17-year-olds that smoking weed is bad for the development of their brains, then you may want to change your clothes to appeal to your targeted viewers -- or not alienate them -- and select language that they will hear. Don't be put off an interview by inexperience, and a bit of nervousness can actually add to your authenticity on screen. 

Is all media exposure a good thing?

No. If you are trying to open a heroin injection site without being mauled by conservative business owners, it might be wise not to do that interview with the Christian radio program. If you are David Suzuki there may be nothing to be gained by debating someone like Ezra Levant, whose audience loves to hate environmentalists. That said, there can be value in accepting interviews with media that may be opposed to your point of view, but are willing to give you a fair hearing. People like to hear their opinions challenged, respectfully, and sometimes change their minds.

When would you advise people to turn down interview requests?

When you are not ready to go public with particular information. When your interviewer has little interest in giving you a fair audience, and aims to skewer you. When you are simply rehashing old news (and risk pissing people off).

What's a common mistake you see people make when pitching stories to media? What methods or approaches make it more likely that your story will get picked up?

People neglect to think about how media work, the daily and weekly cycles of a newsroom. They use jargon, rather than speaking in clear plain language. They skip over basic details, and fail to consider the knowledge level of media they are addressing. And they do not indicate how their information -- what they have to say -- might appeal to the different target audiences of the media they are courting.

For information about Marvellous Media Moments, the one-day Tyee Master Class that James Boothroyd will be teaching on Nov. 7, go here.