Making the Screen: Commanding Television Interviews

Frances Cole Jones during an interview on FOX 5.

Television appearances are tricky for any number of reasons. There’s the fear of forgetting what you want to say. There’s the fear of being asked a question to which you don’t have the answer.  There’s the fear of being cut off by your interviewer. There’s the fear of looking fat (I can’t tell you how often I have that conversation). Finally, there’s the fear of knowing it’s all going out to millions of viewers and being recorded for posterity.

But suppose we change our word choice and substitute “concern” for fear? Concerns are by nature both valid and addressable—and all of the above concerns are indeed valid and addressable.

Part of the reason television is intimidating is because we forget that—in most cases—we are being brought on as the authority. We have been asked on the show because we know a lot about X, Y, or Z. Instead, we start thinking of the host is the sole authority; he or she will be the one to frame and guide the interview. We will just have to go along on their ride….

Luckily, you are still the authority. And there is a lot you can do to prepare for the questions you’ll be getting.  Below, my top 3 tips:

Wear Blue

In general, you are going to want to take your cue from the probable dress code of your host, the time of day of your appearance, and your subject (Talking finance? Suit. Talking must-have beach books? More casual.)

In every case, however, my overarching recommendation regarding your shirt is that it be “constructed,” i.e. have a collar and cuffs—it’s too easy for something casual to end up looking like a leotard—and always to have it be blue. Why?

  • It looks well on most people.
  • It photographs best (black can suck up the light, white reflect it).
  • We trust it.

Within the spectrum of possible shades of blue, I recommend a French, or cornflower, blue.

Know Your Softball Swing

I often work with magazine editors. One of the seemingly easy questions we prepare for is what’s known as a “softball question,” i.e. “Tell me about your magazine.” (Yes, I know this isn’t technically, grammatically, a question—it’s an “upspeak” statement that demands an answer—but you get the idea.) These are known as softballs because the possibilities for how to answer are so numerous people don’t know what to swing at. (This happens a lot at cocktail parties, too. The next time you hear someone ask “Read any great books lately?,” look around and watch  people’s minds go blank.

A softball question is a seeming conversation-starter that, in fact, is a conversation-stopper. They happen a lot on television because hosts are often so inundated with meetings and materials that their prep-time is reduced to minutes, if not moments.

How should you handle these? Go immediately to a specific: In the case of the magazine editors, they replied “In our next issue, I’m most excited about our article on Y.”

Left, Right, Left….

Have you ever wondered why Charlie Rose, and Inside the Actor’s Studio look so weird to you? It’s because both Charlie Rose and James Lipton sit on the left-hand side of the screen– the rest of the talk show hosts are on the right. Why is this? Because we trust what’s on the right-hand side of the screen, we don’t trust what’s on the left. (This is also why—when they’re doing a product compare/contrast advertisement—the product they want you to buy is on the right-hand side of the screen.) Why is this? It lives in the land of the former superstition that had us believing that left-handed people were sinister.

Although it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get the plum seat if you’re on TV, it never hurts to try.