Meet the Press

26 March 2009 Alec Sabin

For CEOs, dealing with the media is an entirely different prospect than facing the boardroom and shareholders, requiring its own rules and behaviours. Media trainer and actor Alec Sabin gives CEO a masterclass in how to handle being in the spotlight.

Being interviewed can be an unnerving experience and there is often a misconception that you will be able to control the interview and how it subsequently appears, when that is rarely the reality. An experienced interviewer will make you feel you are in control, relaxed and that all of what you have to say is important and interesting. You may be disappointed if that is not what you feel when you see the playback. Often interviewees feel that they are misrepresented even during a live interview.

While preparation is one of the keys to successful interviewing, this preparation should also include awareness of things that may not have occurred to you. For instance, is the interview being recorded? If so, then it will probably be edited. You need to know what the final format of the programme will be and the duration of your contribution.

If the interview is recorded live then there will obviously be no editing and no going back. You can still find out how much they want and what they expect of you. You may have less control with live broadcasting, but equally the interviewer has no control over what you are going to say, levelling the playing field.

Who is the audience?

Do not forget that third party – the audience. While you may be talking to your interviewer, it is the programme’s audience you are addressing and they need to be engaged. If you are familiar with the programme then you should have some idea of who the typical viewer/listener is. If not, ask.

How will the interview be used for broadcast?

You may be interviewed for a variety of formats. They may want a clip for a package, which will be a short feature with at least two clips of interviewees often representing different viewpoints. Both radio and TV do a version of this. They may want you for a live interview on radio or TV on daytime programmes. You may be interviewed live between several music tracks on a radio music station. You may be part of a studio discussion.

How to get the best out of an interview

"While you may be talking to your interviewer, it is the programme’s audience you are addressing and they need to be engaged."

There are a number of factors that will influence the outcome of an interview, some of which you can control, some not.

If you have access to the expertise of a press or public relations office then you should be guided by them as to how the interview will be conducted, such as what areas the interview will cover, who is it for and how it will be broadcast. They may even ‘hold your hand’ during the interview. Spin doctors will try to control the questions and areas of interest in order to put you in a favourable light. The interviewer may or may not go along with this.

Why are you being interviewed?

You can get a lot of information from the journalist who has approached you. What is the story? What angle are they taking? Who else have they approached? If they are reticent to tell you, do they have something to hide? What do they want?

The message

The producer or interviewer may have a clear idea of what they want from you. They may have expertise themselves and require you to add authority to the thesis or angle of their programme, in which case you can agree to go along with it or suggest another angle or more information which they may not have thought of. You may compromise. In any case you need to join in the process of deciding what is of interest and what should be included or excluded.

Politicians are famous for not answering the question. Prior to an interview one politician remarked that he had all the answers, all he needed were the questions. This might seem rather arrogant and perhaps justifies the rough handling of politicians by certain journalists, but it also demonstrates an approach that other interviewees can learn from – namely to define your message prior to interview. What do you want to get across to the audience?

You may like to discuss with colleagues or friends what the top-line message is. This helps to keep your focus, especially if the interviewer – intentionally or not – leads you away from what you consider to be the point of the interview.

You will then want to decide on some key points. You cannot rely on the interviewer asking you exactly the right questions especially within a restricted time, so be ready with two or three key points which hopefully you will get to express. If you have anecdotes to illustrate them, then all the better, since they will capture the audience’s attention more effectively.

Challenging questions

If the subject of the interview is controversial, the interviewer may want to challenge you or even ask what you may feel are hostile questions. The golden rule is not to get annoyed or emotional. Treat the journalist with respect. Stick to your key points.

The questions and scope of the interview

It is not usual to be given the questions in advance – except the first one – although you can expect to know what the scope of the interview will be. If there are any areas you would prefer not to deal with then tell the interviewer or producer in advance. If you give a good reason, for instance, that you do not have information on that area, or something is undecided, they should respect that. If they then bring it up during a live interview, it will be either through incompetence or because they think you have something to hide and want to challenge you.


If you are nervous it helps to focus on the subject of your interview and establish a relationship with your interviewer before the interview starts. Chat about the subject and get into a conversation with the interviewer. It will take your mind off your nerves and it may also help to gather important information about what is expected of you. Deep breathing will also help you to relax: breathe into your abdomen on a count of three and out through your mouth on a count of five.


Make sure your mobile phone is switched off. The interviewer should have made sure that you are in a quiet environment if not in the studio.

"You should be aware that appearance always counts a good deal on TV and can enhance or detract from your message."

Check your appearance if appearing on television. Something you may not have noticed will be magnified on camera. Hair should be tidy and out of your eyes. If you are in the studio, a make-up artist should check you and apply powder if necessary. Men should guard against those shiny receding hairlines. You should be aware that appearance always counts a good deal on TV and can enhance or detract from your message. Neutral and plain colours are a good rule of thumb for wardrobe.

Body language is important. Be careful what you do with your hands. They can be very distracting and send the wrong messages. Keep them away from your face in particular. They can be used for emphasis if it is natural for you to use them, but in general keep them down and in front of you.

Be sure to remain still. Do not slouch if standing, and if seated you should choose a chair that does not move.

Check the eye-line between you and the interviewer. If you are of uneven heights make sure that the seating is adjusted so you are not looking up to, or down on the interviewer.

If you have any control over your surroundings – you are at work, in your office, for instance – then dress the set. Perhaps a book-lined wall is appropriate, or at the office desk with computer on show. Jacket off or on? Tie? White coat? They all tell a story.

Be prepared for the whole process to take time: up to an hour for a three-minute TV interview would be normal.

If you are being interviewed via a phone link whether on radio or TV, you are effectively using your phone mouthpiece as a microphone. Make sure you speak clearly, as the sound quality will be lower than if you were speaking into an actual microphone

After the interview

You can discuss how it went with your interviewer and producer. They may have different priorities from yours and will be thinking about whether they got what they wanted, rather than your overall performance, especially if it is to be edited. By all means ask for feedback and advice, but the value of such feedback may be limited, unless your interviewer is also a media trainer. More usefully you can judge your performance on playback and ask yourself whether you got across what you wanted - your key points.

You’re On!, £9.99, is published by How To Books Ltd