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Preparing for media interviews – the importance of rehearsals

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

There was a time when I was growing up that I didn’t see much of my sister, Joanne. She’d joined Toddington Amateur Dramatic Society (TADS) and for long periods was busy rehearsing for her next role along with the rest of the cast. Or at least that’s what she told our mum and dad. Now I’m clearly not a very good brother because I don’t remember many of her performances. I think she may have played Liz in Billy Liar (or maybe I’m confusing her with Julie Christie). But what I do remember is neither Jo nor Julie ever missed a line and both had a magnificent stage presence.

Joanne Uridge playing Liz in Billy Liar.

Why? Because actors rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again so that when the curtain opens and they walk on stage they hit their marks and they hit their lines. Doesn’t matter whether they’re walking the boards before a modest audience at the village hall or in front of a sell out crowd in London’s West End.

So why would anybody stand in front of an audience ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand times larger without rehearsing? An audience so big it wouldn’t fit in the world’s biggest auditorium. But they do. Every day of the week. In media interviews. And it’s hardly surprising that they fluff their lines.

In my media training workshops I explain that interviewees must think of themselves as performers. That although there is no obvious stage or proscenium arch (especially if they’re doing a down-the-line radio interview from home) they are, in effect, walking onto a stage with an audience of potentially millions. That frightens them. More than a bit. But it helps make the point that if actors rehearse for performances in far smaller actual theatres, then so should interviewees for their performances in the far, far larger virtual “theatres” of radio programmes and podcasts, television networks and online video channels such as News24 and YouTube.

When my sister was at home she spent hours pacing up and down muttering words under her breath. Learning lines is, of course, a big chunk of the actor’s craft. But actually learning lines verbatim, committing a script to memory, is one of the worst ways of rehearsing for a media interview. So what’s the best way to prepare for a media interview? Here’s my six step rehearsal guide.

  1. Distil your key messages from the subject matter. Stick to three or four and try to condense them down to bullet points. Underline the functional word (or words) in each bullet point . Divide a blank screen or sheet of paper into three columns and write these functional words (the essence of your key messages) in the left hand column.
  2. Add up to three carefully selected facts and figures per key message to column two. These facts and figures provide the evidence and speak to the rational part of the the audience – their minds, if you will.
  3. But we’re emotional creatures too. So to engage the audience’s hearts as well as their minds, think of a story or two (they don’t need to be very detailed) to help illustrate your key messages and jot these down in column three. At ACM Training we call this a planning matrix which I’ll happily concede is a rather lofty way of describing a piece of paper with a few scribbles on it. But believe me it can work wonders and turn a fuzzy, unfocussed and unstructured interview into a masterpiece.
  4. Open up your smartphone stopwatch app or countdown timer and outloud (yes, really) practice putting the words on the matrix together into coherent sentences and paragraphs of approximately 30 seconds each. Each time you do this choose different components so you don’t, in effect, end up learning a fixed script but you become well versed at what’s called extemporising lots of different versions.
  5. Once you’ve got the hang of this bit anticipate the questions you might be asked. If you’re likely to be put on the back foot during the interview try especially to predict the hardest questions. For example, will you resign? Or, who’s the blame?
  6. Then practice dealing with these questions and moving on to your key messages, facts, figures and stories. As before, try to bring your responses in around 30″ long. It’ll be harder because, short of ignoring the questions entirely (like some politicians), some of that time will inevitably be taken up dealing with the question leaving you less time to move on to what you want to talk about. Have a quick listen to this podcast on why a question and response instead of a question and answer approach is the best way of handling media interviews. When you feel comfortable delivering your key messages – illustrated and evidenced in a variety of ways – irrespective of the question and have got the feel for speaking to length then it’s showtime! Providing you don’t sound slippery or evasive and have struck the right tone. But those are other lessons for other posts.

Actors rehearse. So should interviewees. Remember you’re on a stage of sorts. And while you can’t see their faces the audience is potentially huge. So break a leg as they say in show-business.

Richard Uridge, media trainer

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