On March 20, 2001, I had my 15 minutes of fame. Actually, it was about 7 minutes, but I'm satisfied. I was supposed to get only 5.
That morning I had an experience that most writers only fantasize about. I appeared on the Today show to discuss my just-published book, White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America. I had spent more than four years researching and writing the book, which was a look at overwork, stress, and declining financial benefits from jobs at many of America's best-known employers. The Today interview was my chance to convince a huge national audience that it absolutely, positively had to read my book.
I almost entered the green room, where guests wait for their on-air appearances, unprepared. Fortunately, thanks to a friend who is a media trainer, I'd spent weeks cramming for all kinds of interviews (hostile, friendly, short, long, misinformed, you name it). By the time I sat down with Katie Couric, I was a lean, mean interview machine, as prepared as anyone could be to look relaxed, make friendly eye contact, and do whatever it might take to get my three messages (more on that later) across.
I wasn't always that way. In fact, I used to be pretty laid-back about the whole interview experience, figuring that after 20 years as a journalist I knew everything I needed to know about how to deal with the Q-and-A process. But Jeff Bloch -- who trains executives to handle product launches, investor relations, and the occasional crisis -- was determined to show me just how wrong I was. Although dubious, I signed up for two of his one-on-one training sessions, each of which lasted for four painful hours.
My first mistake, I quickly learned, had been assuming that the secret to a successful interview was to know your subject matter backward and forward. I was pretty cocky: I had statistics, anecdotes, theories. No one was a better source than I was on the subject of white-collar work life.
Then we began our first mock interview. (A big part of media training is going through practice sessions again and again in order to identify and correct weaknesses -- of which I had my fair share.) Jeff asked me a deceptively simple question: "So, Jill, tell me what your book is about." Great, I thought. I started talking about the boom years of the 1990s and was planning to meander my way into a discussion of workplace problems and to end with an eye-popping story that would illustrate just how bad conditions had become at the nation's largest employers.
Planning was the operative word. After a minute, Jeff cut me off. "My eyes are glazing over. The audience has switched channels. You've got to get to the point more quickly," he said. But when we tried it again, I couldn't figure out how to make my point before he interrupted me with a "No, no, no," even when I started talking faster than my already rapid Manhattanite's pace.
He'd accomplished his first goal, which was to show me that I didn't have a point. From a media trainer's perspective, your "point" is one thing and one thing alone: what you want to accomplish during the interview. Your interviewer's agenda doesn't matter one bit. During the prep stage, you have to figure out what your goal is.
In my case, it was straightforward: I wanted to persuade people to buy my book. My ability to shed insights on the post-World War II economy was irrelevant unless those insights moved copies out of the bookstores. My interview responses had to get me to my goal without being so blatantly self-serving that my interviewer would turn against me and end the conversation. That takes media training.
Now that I was feeling a little less cocky, Jeff explained that I'd have time to get across only three messages -- if I was lucky -- during any interview. So I needed to figure out what those three messages should be in order to accomplish my goal. (If I were the CEO of a pharmaceuticals company launching a new drug, those messages might be: This is why ailment XYZ is serious, this is how our product addresses it, and here's how you can tell if you might benefit from our drug.)
My original approach -- to show that I was the definitive source on every fact relating to white-collar workers -- might have earned me top marks in graduate school. But in an interview, Jeff said, I would convey a mixed message at best. The viewer would come away thinking, "She knows everything there is to know about this subject. She's already told me everything, so I don't need to buy the book. Plus, she even knows more than I want to know, and she probably put that in the book, too. So I'm glad I'm not planning to buy the book."
Yikes. At that point I realized I was my own worst enemy. I could imagine myself sabotaging sales because I knew so much and had gotten too caught up in my own material. I threw myself into the process of figuring out my three focused messages and, an hour later, came up with a few strong prospects: "My book is about workplace trends that many people can identify with. (Buy my book, audience, because it will show you that you're not alone.) It's full of incredible stories. (Buy my book, because it's a fun read.) And I've got lots of suggestions about ways that people, as well as companies, can combat deteriorating job trends. (It's a self-help book. Buy it.)"
During more mock interviews, I was amazed at how much it helped to keep those three messages in mind. I left Jeff's office a chastened woman, prepared to continue rehearsing my answers to all possible questions. I would plan ahead for every single interview and shop till I dropped for a television-friendly outfit that would replace the jeans and sweaters in which I normally spend my life as a journalist.
Eventually, I did a couple hundred interviews. In fact, I'm still doing them for newspapers, magazines, and radio and television shows. Most of them have gone well. But, as Jeff warned me, I did bomb once or twice. The first of those blunders was an interview with a West Coast radio station that gave new meaning to the word brevity. Jeff had instructed me to prepare myself to get my messages across, no matter how little time I had. But until it happened, I never would have imagined that an interviewer would ask me, "Why are you on this show?" and then follow that with an "Uh-huh" and switch to the traffic report before I could even remember that I had three messages, let alone sprinkle them into the conversation. After that radio spot, I made sure to act quickly.
My second dud interview occurred on a local cable-television show. It was a depressing scene: I was interviewed early one Sunday morning in a TV studio that was so empty it looked like a ghost town. My interviewer was a birdbrain. Not only hadn't she read my book (by that point, I realized that few questioners had); and not only didn't she know why I was appearing on her show (after the abortive radio interview, I was prepared for that); but just before filming she told me in Stepford Wife tones, "Gee, I can't believe anybody is unhappy at their job. We all love it here." Unbelievable. Then she told me to watch her face. She would nod no matter what I said; when she started nodding fast, that would be my cue to cut off my answer.
I blame myself for what happened next. The triple whammy of the idiocy of her questions, the vacancy of the studio, and the rapidity of those nods put me into a semihypnotic state. I didn't care about selling books, let alone expressing my key messages. All I wanted to do was get out of there. But in retrospect, my attitude was ridiculous. When Jeff and I dissected the experience, he emphasized that every interview is an opportunity to accomplish your goal. (He also told me to get over it. I did. But after that, I tried never to have an emotional reaction to an interview or interviewer. I adopted the attitude that "this is just another job.")
The smartest thing Jeff told me was to keep practicing. As he put it, "You don't want to open your show on Broadway without previewing it out of town first." Thanks to that great advice, I couldn't have been better prepared for my Today show interview. How well prepared? The day before my appearance, I got all dolled up in my new dressed-for-success outfit and sat in a chair in my kitchen. I practiced answering every possible question I could imagine being asked, with my stove timer running to make certain I didn't ramble on.
Later that day I practiced my answers in front of a mirror, because Jeff had warned me about my tendency to look too serious when I talked about subjects that I felt passionate about. "Remember, Jill," he'd stressed, "no Dr. Strangelove. Your audience is drinking a cup of coffee and easing itself into a happy new day. You're not going to scare these people into buying your book."
March 20 finally arrived. I kept myself calm during the limo ride to NBC's studios, during a preinterview walk around Rockefeller Center (though I felt a twinge of anxiety when I saw the unbelievably large, rowdy crowd gathered outside the studio where I'd soon be sitting), and during my wait in the green room (when I realized that my old but polished shoes paled in comparison to the fabulous spikes worn by a fellow guest).
Did I get my three messages across in my conversation with Katie Couric that morning? Probably not. She guided our interview in the direction that best fit her interests (which included "family friendly" work policies and their failure to prevent many work-life problems). There wasn't any chance of my going on too long: something in her eyes told me exactly when she wanted me to wrap up my answers.
But I'm not complaining. I got enough of my messages across that I accomplished my goal, which was, of course, to sell books. Within 24 hours of my appearance on Today, White-Collar Sweatshop was the 77th-fastest-selling book on Amazon.com. I was a member of the Amazon.com 100!
In retrospect, one thing is clear: I couldn't have done it without my media trainer.
For Jeff Bloch's tips on successful interviewing, visit www.inc.com/keyword/0202media. Jill Andresky Fraser's most recent book, The Business Owner's Guide to Personal Finance: When Your Business Is Your Paycheck, was published last month by Bloomberg Press. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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