In Man on Fire, Denzel Washington plays a bodyguard who says, “There’s no such thing as tough. There’s trained and untrained.”
Although he was talking about violence in the close protection industry, his advice also applies to media and public relations. You can be as charismatic, canny, and charming as you like, but that talent isn’t the same as receiving media training.
Making a good impression in the face of media professionals, most of whom are incentivized to trip you up rather than to build your reputation, is a skill. Even if you have talent, operating without that skill can lead to embarrassing incidents.
Incidents like these:
1. Not researching the media outlet
Some media outlets exist to serve the community. Others make their money by embarrassing interviewees with “gotcha journalism.” Most fall someplace in between.
The more you know about the media outlet interviewing you, the better you can prepare for your time in the spotlight. You learn the goals of the interviewer, their editorial slant, and how to turn the opportunity into something that makes you look good.
With research, you can gain insight into the specific questions you will be asked. Most journalists lead similar conversations throughout several interviews, and you can review past performance to find patterns.
The same goes for the specific journalist performing the interview. Learn what you can about them and who they work for to avoid showing up unprepared.\
2. Equating media time with public speaking
Many jobs require expertise in public speaking. It’s key to everything from giving sales presentations to leading large meetings to teaching training classes.
Speaking in public seems similar to a media interview, but it’s not. Just because you’re good at public speaking doesn’t mean you’re ready for an interview.
Doing a media interview requires a very different set of skills from giving a public presentation. More than one skilled public speaker has learned this at the cost of embarrassment and lost opportunity.
3. Not researching the audience
Beyond researching the interviewer and their organization, it pays to research the audience they serve. For example, you should give very different answers about a complex product to lay people than you would to industry experts.
Knowing the audience helps you make the correct word choices, select examples and comparisons that resonate, and even select what to wear to make the best impression.
Consider your marketing. You don’t spend money on ads without knowing as much as you can about who’s going to see them. You likewise shouldn’t spend resources on media appearances without similar information.
4. Answering the wrong question
This error happens in one of two ways.
The first is misunderstanding the question and giving an off-topic answer. Because media interviews are stressful, this happens more often than you may think. If your interviewer is kind, they’ll reframe the conversation and give you another chance. If not, the result can be confusing or embarrassing.
The second is missing an opportunity to make yourself and your company shine. Excellent interviewees can take a related question and answer it in ways that make sense while steering the conversation toward crucial talking points.
Media training can help you avoid both mistakes so you keep your message on-point from the beginning to the end of the interview.
5. Going long
People under stress tend to ramble. But in an interview, short, clear answers are always the better way to go.
If it’s a live interview, you risk losing the attention and interest of both audience and interviewer if you give long-winded, meandering answers to questions. If it’s printed or aired after a delay, the outlet might edit out your answers entirely.
You must keep answers clear, concise, and to the point, and that’s not easy. It’s even harder to do it without overcorrecting into terseness or seeming standoffish.
6. Thinking you’re funny
You’ve no doubt seen an interviewee go for a joke that falls flat. This happens because comedy is also a skill, and comedy under stress is a more complicated skill than telling jokes at the office Christmas party.
This mistake remains common because many people retreat into humor under stress. They use laughter to release tension, self-deprecate to lower expectations, or make dark observations to separate themselves from fear or emotional pain.
This is part of human nature. It’s also a recipe for disaster, especially if your purpose in an interview is to look professional and trustworthy to an audience of potential clients.
7. Giving away control
This mistake might be the most common, the hardest to avoid, and the easiest to see when you’re watching an interview instead of participating in it.
Your interviewer wants to dictate the pace and tone of your conversation. They may do this to the point of controlling what you say by how they phrase questions and how they respond to your answers. That’s their job, and most are good at it.
Meanwhile, you want to dictate all of those elements so you make sure you appear exactly how you want to appear. This is a subtle struggle between you and the person conducting the interview.
The skills necessary to successfully maintain control without appearing overbearing are key things people learn during media training, and they’re virtually impossible to develop in other contexts.
8. Bad camera skills
Being in front of a camera isn’t natural for most people, and many untrained interviewees make one of two mistakes: they become hyper-aware of the camera or ignore it entirely.
Interviewees who are hyper-aware of the camera lose their natural posture and demeanor. They appear uncomfortable and distracted. Some even mug for the camera when they should focus on the interviewer.
But ignoring the camera can be just as bad. Interviewees who make this mistake end up sitting at disadvantageous angles with poor results.
The happy middle ground of a telegenic, relaxed presence can only come with practice.
9. Selling too much
We’ve all seen interviews where the subject spent too much time selling their wares, leaving you less trusting of them than you were before you’d met them.
Sometimes this is a matter of spending too much time selling. Other times, it’s how the selling took place: being too obvious or off-topic so it doesn’t feel natural and organic to the conversation.
Either way, it wastes the opportunity afforded and the resources spent on booking the media appearance in the first place.
10. Selling too little
It’s also possible to sell too little. The purpose of taking a media interview is to let the public know about your company and what it sells. If you don’t do that, you’ve missed the opportunity the interview provided.
One solution is to think of yourself as not in the role of a salesperson, but rather a teacher. By answering questions from a position of knowledge and authority, you show the audience that you and your company know your industry well. You sell your expertise and engagement rather than particular products, which can lead people to trust the products themselves.
11. Going “off the record”
No matter what the interviewer tells you, there’s no such thing as “off the record.” Anything you say to a journalist is fair game. If you don’t want it printed or broadcasted, don’t say it.
“Interviewer-interviewee privilege” doesn’t exist, and there’s no recourse if a journalist seems to promise not to share something you say, then goes ahead and shares it anyway. Bringing information to the public eye is their job.
Be especially careful about this with any sensitive information within your company that hasn’t yet been published. Ensure that anything you want to share has been approved by your PR team and your legal advisors, because whatever you mention will likely get out.
You have three options for avoiding mistakes like those listed above. One is to try your best without training, relying on your native talent and good sense. Many professionals do this, but it leads to those errors as often as not.
Another option is to get media training to go into public-facing situations with the skills you need or hire somebody in-house who has that training. This can work, but it can also require an expensive investment in something not part of your organization’s core mission.
The third option is to hire a professional public relations firm to manage your media contacts for you. This can be less expensive than the second option and more effective than the first.