I’m in my 25th
year as the producer and host of a
n interview program on
a National Public Radio station in San Francisco.
How I choose whom to interview
I don’t care much whether a person has media experience or a “radio voice.” Some of my best guests had neither. I care mainly about well-expressed content. Is it:
Fresh. Much of what is offered as ‘new” isn’t sufficiently so. My audience doesn’t need to hear yet another call for bosses to be kind and collaborative yet crisp.
I particularly like intelligent perspectives that aren’t widely expressed. For example, today’s media focuses on helping society’s have-nots. So rather than have a guest on who’s trumpeting that, I’d be more interested in a thoughtful contrarian idea:
Many people think that bright and gifted kids will do fine even if schools pay little attention to them. So, much funding has been reallocated from them to low achievers. Alas, we all know brilliant failures. And it seems especially important that above-average students be given a chance to live up to their potential. After all, they’ll be our scientists, our leaders, our bridge builders. Besides, all kids should have the right to not be bored six hours a day five days a week for a decade. All children are entitled to an appropriate-level education. Might your listeners like a discussion of whether the funding pendulum has swung too far from above-average kids?
That pitch is persuasive not just because it presented a not-oft-heard view but because it was powerful, concise, and bolstered by examples.
Important. I look for topics that are important to listeners’ lives and/or to society. For example, on April 27, I’ll do my second hour-long interview of former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. We’ll talk about the minimum wage, taxation, regulations, and creating jobs. I’ll also ask him about his life and any life lessons that may be embedded. He is a fine guest for my program.
I want to stress that many of my guests are not eminent. If your content is important and fresh, and you can present it concisely and with examples, you have a good chance of getting a yes from me and from many media interviewers I know.
Every expert (or publicist) that pitches me says their topic is important, even if it’s Medieval Indo-European linguistics. That’s not surprising. They’ve taken decades to become an expert. If they didn’t think their field was important, they wouldn’t have devoted that much time to it. That doesn’t mean my listeners won’t change stations when they hear me start to interview someone about their career as a botanist who passionately studies marigolds’ day-night cycle. (I actually know a professor who does that.)
Makes good radio. A topic can be important but might not make good radio. For example, it’s important for small business owners to know budgeting but unless the guest is filled with fascinating anecdotes, that topic won’t work well on the radio.
Interestingly presented. This, of course, is crucial. Does the person present the content concisely and interestingly: with statistics, examples, and anecdotes, especially emotionally powerful ones. Remember, that to change attitude, let alone behavior, requires appealing to both to the rational and emotional.
If I'm not sure whether to book a guest, I pre-interview: asking the person a few questions on the phone. That not only helps me decide but also to unearth content I want to ask about.
Many media outlets require multiple interviewees. So you may increase your chances of getting a yes by suggesting a co-interviewee, ideally someone offering a different perspective. Of course, choose someone who will be fair to you. Especially under the pressure of a media interview, some co-guests will demean you and even lie to make themselves look good.
Finding people to pitch
Here are some sources:
- Popular bloggers, journalists you like to read and producers of radio programs you like to listen to. Often the outlet’s website tells where to send your pitch. Unless instructed otherwise, email or even Twitter is safer than phone—Many in the media find a phone call too intrusive. If you decide to call and don’t have their phone number, you may find it by Googling the person’s name, title, organization and/or area code of where the media outlet is based. Or call the media outlet’s general phone number and use the dial-by-name directory to get to them or their voicemail. If you get voicemail, do leave a message and keep it concise. In our previous example:
I’m Jane Blow, an educational psychologist. School funding is now virtually nonexistent for bright and gifted elementary school children. That has profound implications for all kids and for society. I’d be pleased to be interviewed about it. If that might interest you, my phone number is 510-111-1111. That’s 510-111-1111.
- Directories of media outlets. Google “media directories” and you’ll find general-interest and specialty ones. Or go to the website of a major library where you have a library card and see if you can access a suitable one online. If not, phone that library’s reference librarian for advice on how you can access one..
Like any sales, expect your pitch to be turned down 90 percent of the time. But one in ten or even 20 is usually worth the effort.
Preparing so you’ll do well
If it’s video (TV, Skype, or Google Hangout,) wear something that’s just one notch toward the average compared with what your audience will expect you to wear. For example, if you’re a man who’s an expert on drama therapy, wear a sports jacket over that black shirt. If you’re a woman who is a corporate lawyer, instead of that gray pinstripe suit, wear a soft-colored suit. I’m not a fan of the standard Power Red. That attention-getter has been used so much that it's too transparently a technique and makes you look like you’re trying too hard. In any case, don’t wear anything white, stripes, or bold patterns. Those look bad on video.
Don’t over-prepare. The tyranny of excessive content will make you rush and/or be too detail-oriented, burying your talking points amid lesser nuggets. Think back to interviews you’ve watched, read or heard a week ago. How much do you remember? If you’re like most people, it’s just the main point or three.
So just prepare one to three talking points. These are the points you most want your audience to remember. Write those talking points in as few words as possible—Aim for ten words or less. For each, come up with a statistic, example, or anecdote to drive it home.
Don’t memorize your talking points nor that supporting material. Unless you are a media pro or trained actor, you’ll sound scripted. Instead, further distill each talking point to one or two words plus a few words for each statistic, example, or anecdote. Put those on an index card.
Let’s take our example of the person arguing that high-ability elementary school children are now being short-changed. This is what you might write on your index card:
Prove reallocation. Stat: Gifted budget drained, special ed’s skyrocketed.
Brilliant failures. Joe anecdote.
Solutions: funding, teacher training. Cite model program.
Rehearse your talking points, perhaps recorded, and ask yourself, “If I were in the audience, would I understand the point? Be compelled by it? Feel good about the speaker?” You might even ask a friend to role-play the interview with you. Ask the person for feedback and/or record and review it on a webcam or camcorder. Feel free to look at your index card during the interview. Even top interviewers do.
Your demeanor is key. Aim for authoritative but pleasant, with moderate enthusiasm and intensity. Too flat or over-the-top doesn’t work. Remember what happened when Howard Dean issued a too-enthusiastic war whoop when he won the Iowa primary—It killed his candidacy.
Also try to be, net, positive. Yes, you can point out problems but also, if possible, propose solutions that you can legitimately be optimistic about. A pleasant smile—I said pleasant, not salesperson-like—can make you appear more likeable and be your relaxed, positive self.
Maxing the interview
Remember to bring your index card and, if you’re promoting a book, a couple of copies.
If it’s a webcam interview, position the webcam at eye-level and be sure your face is well lighted, not in shadow. Look right into the camera or just over the top of the lens.
Keep that index card in front of you.
If it feels necessary, remind the interviewer to promote your book, website, consulting service, etc.
Sit straight but lean slightly forward. It shows enthusiasm. If hand gestures are natural, use them but no wild gesticulations. In American culture, those are perceived not as being enthusiastic but as out of control.
Right before the interview begins, remind yourself to be your authoritative but pleasant self. If you’re feeling nervous, take a couple deep breaths, roll your neck around, and try to enjoy being interviewed.
Forget about the camera. Just look at the interviewer.
During the interview, it’s fine to repeat your best talking point or two. As said earlier, people remember little from an interview.
If the interview is drawing to a close and you haven’t had a chance to make one of your talking points, it’s okay to say something like, “There’s one more thing I’d like to say, if I might. ” The interviewer will almost always allow you to.
If it’s a panel interview, try to have the last word. That’s what’s disproportionately remembered.
At the end of a non-print interview, don’t rush off. For example, stay on the line until they disconnect. Sometimes, a minute or so after the show, someone gives you an attaboy/girl, or even offers you another interview opportunity.
After the fact
If you’d like to be interviewed again and believe that’s a realistic possibility, write a thank-you note offering to do another interview, perhaps on a different topic that you think would interest the interviewer. In a few months, circle back, pitching yourself again, perhaps with different content, for example, something that’s water-cooler topical: what people are talking about around the water cooler or is getting lots of media coverage.
A Sense of Perspective
In addition to hosting my radio show, I’ve been interviewed many times in major print and broadcast media. Despite often being asked back, which they wouldn’t do if I had done poorly, I’ve learned that I rarely get much financial benefit from appearing.
So now when I get interviewed, my thoughts are simply: How can I do as much good as possible? And I think gratitude: I’m grateful for the opportunity to--just by talking--help a lot of people. Actually, that’s how I feel about writing this article. I do hope it helps you land, succeed at, and enjoy being interviewed. It can be fun.
Marty Nemko’s radio show and his 2,000+ published articles, blog, and Twitter stream are at www.martynemko.com. Marty Nemko's latest book is What’s the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America.