Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re in no danger of being characterized as a “rent-a-gob”.
That’s the term CBC radio host, Robyn Bresnahan laughingly used last week to describe the expert source who’s willing to talk about anything, regardless of how distant the topic is from his professional background.
The women Informed Opinions typically works with are much more likely to hail from the opposite end of the chutzpah continuum: although confident about their subject matter expertise, when asked by journalists to provide context in an interview, they’re often inclined to defer to someone else. And many view the prospect of a live conversation on radio or TV as especially intimidating.
That’s why we were delighted to partner with CBC Ottawa last week to provide a handful of expert women with an informal orientation. Some of the broadcasters behind Ottawa Morning (local radio) and Power and Politics (national TV) invited us in to their studios to help de-mystify the experience.
Producers Karla Hilton, Ruth Zowdu, and Amy Castle joined host Robyn Bresnahan to describe the process from first contact and pre-interview by a researcher, to the on-air drill, taking questions throughout.
For both TV and radio, they explained, the pre-interview conversation is designed to determine whether or not your expertise lines up with the focus of the segment they’re aiming to do. If they don’t end up using you after all, it’s not personal.
Many experts enter the interview preoccupied by the fear of being judged by their colleagues as having simplified the issues.” But as Karla advised: “You’re not speaking to your colleagues, you’re speaking to 200,000 people who know almost nothing about the topic.” Making information accessible, something a lay audience can understand, is not ‘dumbing down’, she said, “it’s all about relatability.”
Added Robyn, “Pretend you’re talking to your mother… Offer examples. Describe the human elements. Forget the acronyms. If you use them, I’ll just have to unpack them or ask you to explain.” She also stressed,
“We’re looking for stories with people at their centre.”
And yet many of the expert women we support don’t want to be at the centre themselves. They don’t mind offering analysis, but they don’t seek the spotlight, and they’re all too able to imagine the discomfort they would feel if put on the spot by an aggressive reporter intent on making them look bad.
But not all — or even most — broadcast programs reflect the kind of interview style made famous by investigative reporters on shows like 60 Minutes or The Fifth Estate. Yes, public officials are often questioned in a manner designed to hold them to account for the decisions they’re making and the public dollars they’re spending.
But the value of other subject matter experts is usually their ability to help listeners, viewers and readers to make sense of breaking news, emerging trends or intractable challenges. And the host of the radio or TV program doesn’t want you to feel like a deer in the headlights. Said Robyn,
“We want you to feel comfortable so we can have a relaxed conversation and you’ll want to come back.”
She also reminded the academic and non-profit sector experts that if they are asked to participate in a program, it’s because they’ve demonstrated in the pre-interview that their perspective will add value. “You’re here for a reason,” she said.
The Ottawa women who had the opportunity to visit CBC’s studios last week were enormously appreciative of the insights they gained into the process, and the practical tips they’ll be able to apply to future interview opportunities.
Building on the success of this visit, we’ll be looking for opportunities to partner with other broadcasters across the country who are similarly interested in increasing the number of expert women available to their viewers and listeners.
In the meantime, if you sign up to receive blog updates (see below), in future posts we’ll be providing a checklist of the questions you should ask the reporter when contacted for an interview, and more detailed suggestions regarding the things none of us like to ask, but we all worry about. (How important is make-up? What should you wear? And is it true that the camera adds 10 extra pounds?)
Also of note, the media interview skills workshops we deliver provide much of this context, in addition to concrete preparation strategies and mock interview practice. And the Resources section of our website makes some of these insights available for free.