How to look good on television

by Adrian Dayton

Originally posted in The National Law Journal on March 14, 2013

“In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Andy Warhol said. Let’s say your time has arrived—your social media messaging has caught the attention of an old-media platform and you have the chance to be interviewed on national TV. Will you be ready? How should you prepare to make a great first impression? How will you make the most of your 15 minutes of fame?

staley_joelI asked this question of Joel Staley, who has worked with celebrities, senior executives and brand representatives for Fortune 500 companies.

“Lawyers know how to do their homework” when preparing for a deposition or researching a brief, Staley said. “They need to take that same preparation when getting ready for the media. Don’t turn off your research and inquisitive approach, because you are going to need it. Keep that mindset.”

Your first question should be: Who is the reporter? “What is their interview style? Watch them online. Read them. Get a sense of their style. Are they a Diane Sawyer, who is so sweet and pretty then throws darts—these barbed questions that leave you looking like a deer in the headlights? Or are they like Ed Bradley, the machine gunner who relentlessly attacks people with questions? This tends to make a person look flustered and inarticulate. Inarticulate can make you look guilty.”

Staley advises interviewees to research how the reporter has handled the subject matter before. “You could be sucked into a story where the interviewer already has a bias. Be aware of what their slant is before you talk to them.” 

You’ll need to map out what your posture should be. “The key to success is to know your story,” Staley said. “This is not a time for improvisation; this is not a time for creativity. Know the key points that you need to insert into the story.”

Take a lesson from the presidential debates. The candidates typically take unfriendly questions and flip them around to make themselves look good. “It’s called re-framing,” Staley said. “You don’t have to answer the questions as it is given to you.” If asked, for example, “When did you stop beating your wife?” you reply: “I think what you’re asking is, what kind of a relationship do I have with my wife. In all honesty, it has never been better. We have a loving and close relationship, and I am lucky to have that kind of woman in my life.”

Avoid long-winded answers. “Make sure the first thing out of your mouth is what you want to be on air,” Staley said. “That short answer that is off-the-cuff is going to end up in the program.” This is no place for sarcasm. “They can only broadcast what you give them, so don’t give them distracting information or the key message will be lost.

What are a few simple things to keep people from looking unprepared?

“Arrive early for the interview—you don’t want to be rushed,” Staley said. Show up 10 to 15 minutes early, sit calmly in the studio and review your key messages. Gather your thoughts—you don’t want to be rushed. Turn your cell phone off—consider leaving it in the car—you don’t want to be interrupted.”

Dress conservatively so as not to distract from your message. Avoid tight patterns and stripes—”they don’t read well on the screen.”

rubio_marcoLately, Twitter and Facebook have made great sport of an image of Marco Rubio lunging for a bottle of water during his rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. How could he have avoided that?

“Get a piece of hard candy and suck on it so your salivary glands can get primed,” Staley suggested. Personally, I have found that eating an apple or some citrus before a talk can be a big help. You just don’t want a small detail like that to become a distraction.

Staley recalled an interview in which Bill Clinton wore calf-length socks. “I don’t remember what he said, because I remember when he crossed his legs you saw his white Pirates of the Caribbean legs. Wear the socks that go all the way to your knees in a talk show interview. Also, pull the bottom of your coat under you so that your jacket doesn’t bunch. Avoid bright white shirts—generally, light blue will make things easier on the cameraman and won’t be as distracting from you or your message.”

One last thing: “As you arrive in the studio, the moment you step out of the car you need to step into character,” Staley said. “There have been so many gaffes when interviewees didn’t know the mike was on. Stay in character from when you leave the car until you are back in your car again.” This goes for any pre- or post-interview chit-chat with your host.

You may only have 15 minutes of fame in this life. So make sure, when the lights come on and the camera is rolling, you are ready for prime time.

Written by:

Adrian Dayton

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