It's now part of every executive's job description: Be good at TV.
In the past, the big challenge was to give a good speech. Enter corporate speechwriters, who could make sure that the words on paper at least made sense. Keep your head down, stick to the script, and you're home safe. But now that's table stakes. Now you have to be fast on your feet, smooth in your delivery, and sharp in your comebacks — and do it live, on air, face-to-face with an interviewer. In the boom times, you were touting your high-flying stock on CNBC. Now you're just as likely to be on C-SPAN, explaining why none of it was your fault. Good news, bad news — whatever the situation, you can be sure that the lights will be hot and the medium cold: Remember, the camera never blinks. Are you ready for your 15 minutes of fame? Here are six tips from the best media trainers in the business. But before we begin, how about a little makeup to take that shine off your forehead?
1. Be a great storyteller. The TV journalist asks you a question, and you deliver what sounds like a memorized, scripted answer. Big mistake. That's why Michelle Smith of M Strategies Consulting in Dallas warns her clients never to deliver a canned response to a question. "Use descriptions, share anecdotes, and be conversational," Smith says. "The journalist's take-away should be, 'Company X is an innovative company.' But you would never say, 'We are innovative.' That would sound like you were reading from a brochure."
2. It's not a conversation, it's a presentation. Acting conversational is one thing. Making the mistake of thinking that an interview is just another chat over a cup of coffee is quite another. Says Lee Duffey, president of Atlanta's Duffey Communications Inc.: "It's when people are lulled into a sense of camaraderie that they say things they have no business saying. Remember your message. It's more like a job interview or a sales presentation than a conversation. And never give a sound bite that you can't swallow."
3. Take your cue from CNN Headline News. "So many people are used to standing in front of their teams providing proof after proof after proof in order to justify a decision or explain an accomplishment. Then they do that on camera, and you can just see the interviewer's eyes glaze over," says John Radewagen, vice president of corporate communications at the San Jose - based Hoffman Agency. "I teach people to start at the top and give the conclusion first. Start with the headline, and don't get lost in the proof points."
4. Be provocative; be passionate. It's not always bad news when a reporter comes knocking. So don't play the victim or clam up out of fear. "Have something of substance to say," says Duffey. "Don't be afraid to be controversial, as long as you can back it up. Make them want to interview you again."
5. Hit softballs out of the park. Think of an opening and closing anecdote to illustrate your message. "That way, if you get a softball lead-in, you can get your message across instead of just saying, 'Thanks for having me here,' " says Radewagen. The same rule applies at the end of an interview: "When they ask you, 'Is there anything else you'd like to add?' remember that you always have something to add," he says. "It's an open invitation."
6. The mic is always on. "Even if the light on top of the camera isn't on, the audiotape is usually still rolling," warns Smith. "There's no such thing as 'off the record,' " agrees Duffey. It's the comment that you share "just between us" that is most likely to end up as the voice-over lead-in to the video package — and get you in hot water with your shareholders.
Sidebar: How to Talk Like a TV Pro
If you're going to become a TV regular, you'll need to know how to speak the unofficial language of the TV pros.
Good scoop: The insight, news nugget, or opinion that no one but you can give. Good scoop is the reason that you've prepared for your media moment. It's what makes your company look great, what satisfies the journalists, and what will keep them coming back to you for more.
Bad scoop: Proprietary information or skeletons in your closet (especially sexy ones). Bad scoop is the breaking news that will make your company — and you — look awful. Avoid at all costs.
Block and bridge: What you do when a question comes up that you can't or don't want to answer. First you "block" by saying something like, "Now that's an interesting question." Then you "bridge" to the message you want to get across by saying something like, "What we focus on most here at Acme Corporation is . . ." The smoothest people can weave their message into any answer seamlessly, no matter what the question. The most awkward people will end up looking like a politician trying to avoid the subject of his last illicit affair.
Flagging: A good way of emphasizing a point that you really want to make. Think of it as a verbal Post-it note. Pause and set up the comment by saying, "This is a really important point." Then make your statement. It sends a clear signal: What comes next is your punch line.
Grip and grin: The art of the start. Always take your cue from the host, but a good rule of thumb is to shake hands first, then make eye contact and smile at your host.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.