How to Give a Media Interview

The work you are doing is at the forefront in the fight against the Trump administration and his agenda in Congress. As a result, there may be times when you and other members of your group are asked to speak to a journalist. Leadership team members may be asked to answer questions about the story of your group or correct misinformation that is out there. Individuals impacted by a certain policy may have opportunities to share their stories.

When giving an interview, the single most impactful thing you can do is be yourself. We’re not just saying that. Indivisible’s founding principle is that local constituents are positioned to influence Congress in a way no one else can. You don’t need to be perfectly polished. You don’t need to be a policy expert. You just need to be an informed, passionate constituent, someone who’s paying attention, someone other constituents might identify with. There’s nothing more attention-getting than that to a Member of Congress (MoC).

In this training, we’re going to cover some basics.

1. How to prepare for an interview;
2. How to practice your interview skills; and
3. How to stay out of trouble.

Setting Yourself up For Success

Media interviews may feel like an high school exam you need to cram for. They’re really not! You have much more control of how the interview will go than you think. Here are a few ways you can “cheat” on that exam and take the suspense out of interviewing—that aren’t cheating at all.

Get the details. Before you agree to an interview, ask the following questions:

1. Is this for broadcast (TV/radio) or a written story?
2. Will it be a live or a taped broadcast?
3. Who will be conducting the interview?
4. Is there something specific you’d like me to cover?
5. What’s your deadline for conducting the interview?

Ask your interviewer in advance what questions you’ll be covering. It is completely kosher to ask, “Could you tell me a little about what questions you’d like to cover? I’d love to be prepared to speak to the issues you guys are interested in.” Interviewers won’t be limited to those questions, but it makes prep much easier.

Lean on a teammate. Be “the talent” for the day! Have a teammate join you for your interview. Put them in charge of any logistics or directions, so you can focus on the interview. Have them listen during your interview and be thinking about anything you should clarify or restate before you leave.

Ask if you can record the interview yourself. A recording will help you remember what notes or clarifications you may want to follow up about. It will also serve as a reference if you happen to be quoted incorrectly later. And, it’s a helpful practice tool for your next interview. Have a friend hold a phone with a voice recorder (but be sure any nearby phones are on silent mode).

Arrive early. Wherever you’re giving your interview, leave plenty of time to make a restroom stop and get comfortable.

Ask questions of your interviewer. TV and radio reporters are used to working with inexperienced interviewees. They’re often your best coach. Feel free to ask things like: Where should I stand? Where should I look? Do I sound OK from here? Just make sure you don’t take too much time. (A good first question: How much time have we got today?)

Afterwards, help them complete the package by sending photos and further info. Get back with any follow-up information promptly. Send the interviewer photos and links. TV stations will appreciate a nice screenshot of your website. Send them the spelling and pronunciation of your name.

Tips for Taped Interviews (Print, Radio and TV). Most interviews you give will not be for live broadcast. In these cases, you have even more opportunities to help shape how the interview goes.

Here are some magic phrases you can use in taped interviews:

  • “Could I say that again?” Most of the time, if you trip over your words a little, it’s OK to ask to re-state your point again a bit more clearly. Ask the reporter about this before the interview begins. They want to get a nice, clean quote from you to simplify the editing process, so you’re saving them time, too. (Remember, though, that your first attempt can still be quoted.)
  • “That’s a good question. Can I double check with my team and get back to you?” Or; “I’m pretty confident about that, but let me triple check after this. I don’t want to tell you the wrong thing.” If you get questions you don’t know the answer to, feel free to tell them you’ll check and get information to them afterwards. Particularly numbers or stats.
  • “If we have a moment before we wrap up, there’s one last point I’d love to make.”Interviewers may even prompt you with this question. This is how you make sure your strongest points get made.

Working on Interview Skills

1. Prepare Two Strong Sentences.

Whether your interview is for TV, radio, or print, a few sentences is usually all that will be used in the end. While you don’t need to have slick “soundbites” at the ready, it’s worth thinking through the couple of sentences that best sum up what you’re trying to say. If you leave the interview making these priority statements, that’s a good day’s work.

How to practice:

  • Just practice those couple sentences out loud, no matter how goofy it feels. There’s no substitute.
  • Write down those sentences. If your interview will be over the phone, feel free to refer to written notes. And if not, the act of writing them down may help you stick to your message.
  • Practice making your point, then pausing. It’s easy to find yourself making a great point, then trailing off at the end, filling the time. Practice saying a message and then leaving a silent pause when you’re done. It adds to your confidence, and it makes your interview easier to edit.

Here are some examples of key points. You may want to draw your “soundbites” from these. You’ll likely want to think through each of them a little bit, as they’re also common questions.

  • “What we really want Congresswoman Sara to understand is…”
  • A policy point. The same level of detail as a call script you’d use to call your MoC’s office with should be fine.
  • An illustrative story about yourself or a fellow group member being impacted by a policy. (Always ask permission, of course.)
  • A sentence grounding yourself in your hometown. Name dropping places and local references makes it harder for your MoC to imply that your group is made up of “outsiders”—an old trick.
  • An action you want the viewer/reader to take: visit your website, find your group on Facebook, attend an event, call their MoC directly, or look up an issue. Think about how to make this user friendly. (Will it be just as easy to look up your group on Facebook by name, rather than spelling out your URL?)

Advanced Interviewing: Tips for Live Broadcasts

Live broadcasts of TV or radio shows are going to require a bit more preparedness. We would recommend that these be handled by group members who have had some experience giving interviews first.

– Watch several episodes of the show and get familiar with its style.
– Practice, practice, practice. Practice with friends, record yourself, and get as up on the issues as possible.
– Practice by doing low-stakes interviews. Look out for local podcasts and cable shows.
– Will there be other guests? Watch whatever footage you can of them too. Is there anything you can find out about the order in which people will speak? This is good to keep in mind because if you’re earlier in the lineup, you may be summarizing the situation. If not, you may be just called to react to others.
– Will there be callers? Put in lots of extra time practicing those pivoting skills!

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2. Pivoting

“Pivoting” is the industry term for the principle that you should always find a way to answer the question you want to be asked. This is also a good tactic when asked a tricky question or “gotcha” question—where the reporter is looking for a specific angle.

How to practice:

  • Read a couple headlines, even if they don’t relate to the issue you’d like to focus on. (This is important to do anyway before your interview.) Practice pivoting from an unfamiliar topic to one of your main points. For example: “I think that’s a really good example of the kind of thing we’re really concerned about, which is that...”
  • Have a friend ask some questions that are exaggeratedly friendly or exaggeratedly hostile: literally, “questions you want to be asked.” Then have them ask more realistic ones on the same topic, and practice giving a similar response.
  • Familiarize yourself with recent news coverage—both locally on your group and nationally on Indivisible as a whole—and keep in mind possible negative narratives that might come up in an interview that you can be prepared to address.

Tips for an effective pivot:

  • Where appropriate, dismiss unfounded concerns with a lighthearted tone (see example in “Sample Pivots” text box).
  • End on a strong note. Make the point you want to make effectively enough to avoid follow-up questions on the topic you were trying to pivot away from.
  • Always pivot to a topic you’re well-versed on or an important point you want to hit. This is key to coming across as credible even if you’re not answering the question directly.

Sample Pivots

Reporter: “Some people have called your group obstructionists, saying you’re unwilling to compromise on anything. What’s your response?”

You: “We would welcome proposals from Congress that would benefit hardworking American families and help the most vulnerable in our community. That’s why it’s so important (pivoting transition) to have a conversation with our representatives in Congress about the issues. Sadly, Congresswoman Sara has yet to attend one of the several events we’ve invited her to in order to share our concerns. We are looking forward to having a constructive dialogue with Congresswoman Sara on representing our district’s priorities and values in Washington.”

Reporter: “Congresswoman Sara says she is not coming to your town hall event because of security concerns. Do you think she’s right to be concerned?”

You: “(Laughter.) Indivisible Springfield is a group of regular citizens of the First District and many of us are concerned about some of Congresswoman Sara’s votes. It’s funny, because actually (pivoting transition) we have a large number of retirees in our group. If she decides to come to our town hall event--and we hope she does!-- she will be meeting a lot of concerned Springfield residents in walkers and wheelchairs who’d like to talk with her about their health care.”

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3. Looking and Sounding Your Best.

Here are a couple of tips and tricks for TV:

  • Have a friend or teammate do a last minute appearance check to make sure your hair is in place, teeth are free of food, your clothing is straight/buttoned, etc.
  • Consider taking your glasses off, unless it’s too distracting. Remove them a few minutes before you go on, so those little pink marks fade from the bridge of your nose.
  • Say yes to makeup if offered.
  • Be sure to ask whether you should be looking in a camera or at the interviewer.
  • If you have friends standing with you, have them stand outside your line of vision to avoid distracting your gaze.
  • Wear what you feel good in. Solid colors are good. Blue is a nice choice. Avoid patterns like plaid, which can look distorted on camera. Being identifiably “local” is not a bad thing either—don’t overdo it. Again, just be yourself. (Remember, not all interviews will be strictly scheduled. If you’re a potential spokesperson at an event that cameras may attend, dress accordingly.)
  • People tend to speak faster when nervous. Practice speaking with clear pace and enunciation.

Staying out Of Trouble

As we said in our previous training on getting media to your event, working with local media is generally a collaboration, not an antagonistic effort. You and your interviewer are working together to capture a good story.
That said, there are some unforced errors that you can easily avoid.

  • Assume every mic is“hot!” In all your interactions with a reporter, before and after an interview, assume everything you are saying is being recorded and can be used.
  • Once you say something, you can’t retroactively declare it off-the-record (although you can always ask to clarify your statement).
  • Assume what you say in an email arranging an interview might be fair game for publication.
  • Don’t bring written notes to an interview if you wouldn’t be comfortable with the contents being published.
  • Remember: your group should have one point of contact for media requests. If you’re approached by a reporter at a rally, say that you’d rather not give an interview on the fly without checking in first. You want to make sure you’re on the same page as the team.
  • Declining an interview offer is always an option. If you don’t feel confident that a reporter will give you a fair shake, if you don’t feel ready to speak to a complicated situation, or if you’re just really not feeling ready, talk with your group about other options. Sending a short statement from your group related to the topic will often do the trick, even for TV broadcast. Posting a “selfie” video on Twitter and forwarding that to media is another safe option. Just keep in good touch with your media contacts.