Interrogative on Live Interviews

A company exec in front of a live camera or microphone is a unique opportunity to connect directly with an audience. So why are so many of them so bad?

Spend some time watching the daytime programming at CNBC, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Most interviews are filled with buzzwords and non-news piled on top of news that have me remarking “wait, she didn’t even answer the question” more often than not. Most exec podcast interviews put me to sleep.

Such stumbles don’t come with lots of hard work: PR people produce soaringly generic talking points which then get vetted by marketers to make sure they’re suitably skewed to whatever messages they’ve deemed important. Approvals from legal departments ensure there’s nothing said that could be construed to be surprising or meaningful.

It takes a community to produce an “on brand” throwaway interview.

Before you prep for the next one, here are three questions you should ask yourself:

First, is your exec prepared to be a human being? Doing so is the first if not sole objective of any live appearance, whether video or audio. These media are visceral, not literal, which means that your exec needs to successfully establish credibility and rapport with the interviewer and audience before regurgitating whatever branding blather you’d made her memorize.

This is easier said than done, since many top execs don’t really come across like real people in their daily lives, having spent their careers learning to measure their responses and guard their personal feelings. Some never had much of a personality in the first place, while others have horribly inflated opinions of their own likability (which deservedly should be kept hidden, however imperfectly).

Therefore, you need to help them understand that their goal isn’t to appear smart or leaderly but rather to be human. If they aren’t comfortable with this, you must teach them a few tricks to pretend.

For instance, tell them it’s OK to not know the answer to a question, to smile or frown, and to always speak in the first person (only royalty get to use “we” without sounding like a stunt double for a real person). Talking about the dullest news should be presented in terms of how the exec feels about, wonders, or has hopes for it, and not as if he were some spirit hovering over an operating table describing a procedure.

There are also tricks, like pausing before answering as if they’re actually thinking about what to say (Winston Churchill used to script them) or complimenting their interviewers because they’ve asked a good question or made an interesting point.

Humanity first. Messaging later.

Second, will she talk about solving a real problem? Every strategy seems intended to “create value” these days, especially if it involves technology, as if there were ever plans in the past to purposefully spend or destroy it. It’s a term that comes from corporate boardrooms, where you create value because you can’t credibly explain what you’re really doing.

Further, many (if not most) interviews are booked in hopes of talking about some recent news event. Even if your exec gains airtime to do it, the messaging will be mostly DOA because the media and its consumers are far more interested in ongoing challenges and work; the news prompt is, by definition, no longer newsworthy unless your exec can add something to it.

Whatever the prompt for the appearance — last quarter’s earnings, a tech innovation that proves time travel is possible — your exec should be prepared to talk about some real, unresolved problem and how your company is focused on it.

Think real problems that involve suffering, injustices, and other impacts that don’t require a fancy online dashboard to measure, and not making shopping easier.

Real problems require vision, ingenuity, fortitude, and a host of qualities that audiences respect, both in individuals and from the businesses they represent. Problems make strategies necessary, not just nice to have, and they make talking about your latest breakthrough in using machine intelligence to mine microbial data, or whatever, far more relevant and memorable.

Third, does your exec know that humility is the new confidence? If your exec had all the answers, your company would be the most profitable and untouchable entity if all of human history; if this isn’t the case, live interviews should be considered installments in your search for answers.

Sure, your exec should articulate goals, aspirations, and even talk about confidence in the future as long as it’s couched in terms of personal hope and intention. But the future is unwritten and any interview should reflect this fact.

All of us face that truth every moment of every day.

Maybe it would help if your exec thought of your blathertastic “brand journey” as an ongoing experiment; this would mean that even the most impressive recent accomplishment would be tempered by admission that more work and even greater risk/reward work would follow. One successful test begets the next, which may or may not succeed.

This perspective would allow your exec to use live interviews to invite audiences and journalists into this ongoing narrative, and give them milestones upon which to track it.

It’ll take work to reconfigure the way your execs do live interviews, and you may never succeed in getting marketers and/or lawyers to let them talk like human beings. But even small steps in that direction will improve the credibility and benefit of doing the gigs in the first place. Maybe add some humanity training to the next media training?

It might even create value.

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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