Master the Media Interview and Avoid Lasting Blunders

Jeanne Wolf

As both journalist and media coach I often see very articulate people make mistakes that can be avoided when putting themselves out front in interviews, whether they're on TV or radio, the Internet or in newspapers and magazines.

You Need to Be Prepared
I asked Matt Lauer if he preferred Today Show guests who were media trained or those who just came to the studio to chat (that means to promote). His answer: “It’s great to speak to people who know what to expect. We get such a short time for some very complex subjects. Worse than someone who is spontaneous, is an author who holds up the book 10 times saying ‘You can read it in my book.’”

It is not interesting to viewers if all you do is tout your Web site, your movie project or even your charity. 

"Stay Out of Media Jail" Advice
You can bolster you confidence if you keep in mind that you know more about your subject than the reporter who is asking the questions—but don’t get carried away. You’re in a medium that thrives on sound bites. Prepare yourself to be brief, concise and, when possible, entertaining. Pre-plan and even rehearse some short answers to questions you might expect to be asked. Practice out loud so you get used to really answering, not just memorizing or reciting company policy.

Keep in mind that the audience can be uncomfortable if you are not respectful to the journalist. That means really listening to a question you are asked even if you guide your answer to represent you own views.

Gear Up Not to Sound Like Everybody Else

Don’t rely on cliché phrases. Saying “no comment” or “please respect our privacy” should never be used by a thoughtful PR rep or a public person who is really looking for privacy. If there is a hot topic in the headlines or all over the Web, those words don’t play well in the media. They’ve been greatly overused. 

Be Careful About How You Avoid a Subject

Don’t warn or threaten reporters about things they can’t ask. You are aware that producers are pushing interviewers to bring up any compelling news. So think of a comfortable way to say, “You can imagine I’d like to explain myself but it’s too sensitive a subject.” You can cite legal issues. But it has to be a conversation, no matter how brief. You don’t want do do a “cut off,” which makes you and the journalist lose credibility.

There are exceptions. It’s fine when you are dealing with a death or a tragedy for a publicist to remind the journalist how hard it will be for the guest if you dwell on their troubles. But sometimes when the tough or tender subjects are avoided it can speak much louder than a brief answer.

Keep It Real
Don’t try to totally script your responses in advance. In fact, run away from people who put words in your mouth so that you don’t sound like yourself. You can approach the delicate or even boring subjects with style and integrity. Observe public figures who use personal anecdotes or a “we’re in this together” attitude. It’s not their statements you want to study, it’s the way any subject can be dealt with directly but without satisfying an editor's hunger for headlines you don’t want. Remember that you can often hurt yourself more than anything the reporter asks by starting off in a combative mode. 

Star Examples

George Clooney has charmed me even when he won’t answer a sort of personal question. He's looked at me and said, “You know, Jeanne, there isn’t time to do that subject justice in a few sound bites.” Ryan Reynolds joked to me, “I cannot tell you how many ‘clever’ approaches have been tried on me to get me to talk about my marriage or divorce. But I stick to my rule about not commenting and have a little fun with seeing how reporters try to tip-toe up to the subject.” That’s more human than an offended, “You know I won’t talk about that!” 

The Bottom Line
Embrace the oft-repeated reminder to "just be yourself." Let no one tell you that appearing in a public or a new-to-you environment is easy. Think of the last time you had to make a wedding toast or even those few sentences as each person in a meeting has to introduce themselves. Stand in front of lights and cameras or a reporter with two tape recorders running and you multiply the stakes a thousand times.

As Malcolm Gladwell advises—it only takes about 10,000 times to really master a skill. So start thinking about it right now before you are even near the hot seat.

Jeanne Wolf is an entertainment journalist and media coach who consults with a roster of well-known clients for their media appearances. She can be reached at

  • Ellen Hayes

    Thank you for that. I’ve been looking for information on interviewing with media. I’ve often worried about the answers I would give in that situation. You have been very helpful.