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10 Essential Media Training Tips for Writers

By Leah Ingram October 10th, 2014

In September, Charles Bethea wrote an article for The Freelancer titled “I Went on Good Morning America, and It Was Far from Lights, Camera, Action.” Bethea’s piece was entertaining, to be sure, as he peeled back the curtain on what happens when the broadcast media interviews a journalist who isn’t used to being on camera. According to his account, the overall experience wasn’t great.

In my opinion, two words could have changed everything for Bethea: media training.

Media training helps you, the writer, transition from the interviewer to the interviewee by teaching you new skills that boost your confidence once the cameras start rolling. I would know—I’ve received media training, and now I train others. Getting help in this arena is probably more common than you’d think.

Jack El-Hai recognized his need for media training before his 2007 book, The Lobotomist, a biography about neurologist and psychiatrist Walter Freeman, was published. El-Hai spent years on the project and wanted his hard work to translate to substantial book sales. A self-described introvert, he needed assistance figuring out “what I wanted to say or what was best for me to say once those interviews came.”

El-Hai spent $300 on three sessions with a speaking coach who helped him hone his message, so he could be prepared to talk regardless of whether an interview ran 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

I’ve put together 10 media training tips that can help you turn a potentially terrifying situation into a worthwhile experience. Some may come naturally. For others, you may need to find a professional. And since going on television is often the most intimidating media adventure of them all, some of these tips only relate to TV.

1. Practice smiling when you talk.

I didn’t realize I frowned when I talked until a media trainer videotaped me speaking. This surprised me, since I’m always smiling—except, it seems, when giving a talk. If you want your audience to feel engaged, you need to smile. So I started practicing smiling when talking, be it at the bus stop with my children, at a cocktail party, or during a television interview. Now, it’s second nature.

2. Rehearse sound bites.

After working with his speaking coach, El-Hai had synthesized the story of The Lobotomist into different versions based on time. “I have them for one minute, two minutes, four minutes, even 30 seconds,” he said.

3. Find a trick to remember what you want to say.

I’m a big fan of mnemonic devices, which help me think through my mental to-do list during interviews so I don’t leave out anything important.

4. Record yourself to hear how you sound.

You know how teenagers insert “like” into every sentence? Well, adults have their own version of “like” in the form of “um” and “ugh” and “you know.” You’ll never know if you’re guilty of these fillers without listening to a recording of yourself. With a new perspective, you can practice your points without falling back on filler.

Additionally, seeing yourself on tape can uncover little quirks, which is how Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist and author from Princeton, N.J., discovered she got a far-away look in her eyes when thinking about answering an interviewer’s questions. “Now I focus on that person’s face,” she said, “and that far-off look doesn’t happen anymore.”

5. Find out the length of your interview.

Knowing that interviews can range in length is exactly why El-Hai’s speaking coach had him prepare talking points of varying lengths. For two years, I appeared monthly on the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia to share my frugal-living tips. Those segments ran between two and four minutes long, so I prepared accordingly.

6. Promote your appearance with a call to action to your web site, blog, or online work.

We writers generally do interviews to gain exposure and drive traffic to our work. As a book author, you want those interviews to translate into sales. Radio interviews often wrap up by asking where listeners can get more information, so that’s a natural place to insert that call to action. But TV isn’t always that easy, so find a way to create your own call to action. For example, when promoting my blog, I’ll often start an answer to a question by saying, “Well, over on my Suddenly Frugal blog at SuddenlyFrugal.com, my readers are interested in….”

7. Say and spell your name before the cameras begin rolling.

One of Bethea’s complaints about his Good Morning America interview was they mispronounced his last name. I’ve had TV hosts refer to me as Lisa Ingram or Leah Graham, but usually that happened when I forgot a crucial step: saying and spelling my name before going on-air. You won’t get a guarantee from producers in writing, but this tactic should help.

8. Get camera ready.

Take note of what people wear on TV. Choose bright colors and stay away from crazy patterns that could leave the audience reaching for a motion sickness bag. Don’t forget makeup either—even men get shiny under hot studio lights.

9. Keep the interview on track.

When I have a certain number of message points I want to deliver in my interview, I always start by saying, “I have four tips for saving you money.” Once you’ve put that number out there, the interviewer rarely will cut you off before you get to your last point.

10. Never accentuate the negative.

Sometimes your interviewer has an agenda. A few years ago, I was doing media interviews about holiday shopping, and before I knew it, the host was ranting about the conspicuous consumption and asked me to join in on his bashing of retailers. Rather than acknowledging his negative vibes, I interjected, “My favorite part of the holidays is helping people get their shopping done without breaking their budget, and I’ve got three ways your viewers can do that.”

See? I threw in that number thing again. And I never accentuated his negative agenda.

Still not convinced media training for writers is worth it? Well, it paid off for El-Hai. After his appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, El-Hai said the publicity from the interview “briefly sent The Lobotomist into Amazon ranking heaven.” Additionally, the book was optioned as a film. While that may not be the outcome for every author or freelancer, hearing “lights, camera, action” can still be beneficial—as long as you have the right media training.

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