Heather Simonsen, MA, outlines some ways for health care professionals to feel more comfortable in the spotlight.
My photographer set up the lights and steadied the camera. The surgeon before me was pale and fidgeting. As a seasoned television news journalist, I had seen this many times before—a surgeon at the top of their field, terrified that they would tank on television. I did my best to walk her through the process and calm her nerves. I would have been equally terrified in her role in the operating room. It’s natural to fear the unknown.
As the public affairs manager for Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, I use my insider knowledge to empower and help ease the nerves of our physicians and scientists by preparing them for media interviews. Interviewing with journalists is one of the most effective ways you can share your work with the community and help promote your institution, which can be well worth the discomfort.
Here are 5 tips and tricks to help you shine when the spotlight is on you.
Tip 1: Don't Avoid Interview Opportunities
Avoiding journalists means your institution’s public affairs coverage suffers. Half the battle is being willing to show up and agree to an interview. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
See media interviews as a networking opportunity. Media interviews are a highly effective way to share your expertise. In a single 20-minute interview, you can reach thousands, hundreds of thousands, or more individuals with important messages about prevention, screenings, and general health. “I wish doctors and scientists recognized how many good stories they have in their day-to-day work,” Deanie Wimmer, anchor and reporter with KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, Utah, said. “When you know of encouraging treatments, new research, or inspiring patients, we’d love to know about it. These all offer meaningful information that we would like to relay to television audiences. Understandably, there are complications, [such as] peer review, scientific standards, and confidentiality, that sometimes preclude doctors from sharing that information. But I can’t help but think there are missed opportunities.”
In my work, I have landed numerous stories, most recently with NBC News, by asking the reporter I was working with the simple follow-up question: “What kind of stories are you looking for?” Ask this question while the crew is setting up or after your interview. It’s a chance to pitch your institution’s research and clinical care. They are always looking for content to fill the page, show, or podcast, and this is your chance to see more of your work featured.
Understand that journalism is deadline driven. Newsrooms usually plan content from that morning’s editorial meeting. That’s when producers and the news director decide which stories to pursue that day. Sometimes they can give us notice ahead of time on a request, but other times, it’s last minute. It all depends on the news cycle. Joining a Zoom meeting on your lunch hour or setting aside 20 minutes for an in-person interview before or after clinic can be difficult, but fitting it in helps the place you work for become a trusted source among journalists. This increases the quality and quantity of stories that feature your institution, its reputation, overall mentions, and more. “The most common frustration is accessibility,” Wimmer, who has won multiple Emmy Awards for her work, said. “Their definition of ‘soon’ is often different from ours. I have in mind later today, [whereas] they’re thinking, ‘sometime next week.’”
Brush up on your media training before the interview. Review this article or media tips provided by your public relations teams. If this isn’t your first interview, remember what worked well last time and what you’d like to do better in the future.
Tip 2: Craft Your Story
Draft key messages. Many clinicians do not realize how much control they have over the direction of an interview. By preparing key messages, you increase the likelihood that the information you want to communicate will be the focus of the story. In addition, keeping it to 3 to 4 talking points ensures it will come across in a clear, concise way. It will also ease pre-interview jitters.
Have a few facts or statistics in mind. Statistics back up your answers, but do not try to memorize them. You could write these on note cards and keep them with you during a television interview. It’s fine, and more natural, to look down and read the statistics or data. You can also follow-up with an email after the interview is finished.
Avoid jargon. Keep it simple but remember the audience you are speaking to. “Doctors are experts in highly specialized and complex fields,” Wimmer said. “Anything they can do to help us simplify the information, illustrate it, and relate it to [individuals] will make the message more impactful.” A litmus test in broadcast journalism when writing scripts is often whether the viewer will understand and be interested in the material if they overheard the story while washing dishes.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Review your talking points out loud—in the mirror, to a friend or family member, or with your public affairs colleague. You could even practice with a pet or the plant in your office. The point is: Saying your message out loud before the interview helps ease nerves and sets you up for success. “Imagine it’s the checker at the grocery store you are talking to,” Scot Singpiel, manager of TheScopeRadio.com with University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City, said. “Answer the [following] questions: What is the purpose of your interview? What do you want the listener to think, feel, [or] do after they hear from you? If the listener could only take away 1 thing from your interview, what would it be?”
Tip 3: Know Your Audience
Research the reporter. An internet search of the journalists’ bio, role, and background can reveal whether they are a general assignments reporter, covering a wide range of topics from breaking news to features. In this case, it’s especially important to frame your answers in the simplest terms. A specialized health reporter will have deeper background and insight into complex medical topics. Even still, they will appreciate you starting with the basics on any complicated research.
Find out which show or section of the newspaper or magazine the story will be on or in. If it’s a morning, midday, and afternoon show, the content and tone are usually lighter. Prime time, nightly newscasts are harder hitting. Front page stories in print or online also tend to be more serious. Make sure your answers reflect what you’ve learned about the placement of your story.
Tip 4: Request Questions Before the Interview
Always ask for questions ahead of time. Your public affairs team can help with this. Even if the reporter doesn’t provide the questions beforehand, have some talking points prepared. “You have limited time to get your message across,” Cristina Flores, anchor and reporter at KUTV News in Salt Lake City, Utah, said. “If you have 1 minute to say something on camera, you want to ensure your words and your message are clear. If you don’t, you either waste the opportunity or leave it to others to interpret what you say.”
Reinforce key messages. “During the interview, say, ‘The most important thing to remember is,’ followed by your most impactful response. It makes things clear for the viewer and for the journalist, who [are] often trying to figure out the hook or angle of the story,” Flores said.
Tip 5: Remember, "The Medium is the Message"
This insightful phrase by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher, is among the foundation of media theory and is still front and center in journalism classes across the country. It means that the nature of media platforms influences how your message is perceived and received. Knowing how each medium works empowers you to use that knowledge to your advantage.
How you look matters. “Dress professionally; a lab coat or scrubs are appropriate most of the time,” Flores said. “Make sure your hair is tidy. Makeup for both men and women is appropriate to avoid a shiny complexion or to warm [an individual’s] face, as lighting can sometimes make the skin appear pale.” Primary colors such as blue, red, and yellow look great on television, as well as combinations of those colors, such as green, orange, pink, and purple. I encourage our physicians to bring their own style to the interview. There’s only 1 you, and by bringing your personality and style to the interview, you will find greater success. Ask whether there will be a green or blue screen at the filming to avoid wearing those colors at taping.
How you say it often matters more than what you say. “Don’t be afraid to smile.” Flores said. “Even if you are discussing a serious topic, [such as] cancer, it is important to seem approachable during an interview. A smile also conveys warmth and care for others. Visual cues and how you deliver your message are [just] as important as the words.”
Sit or stand comfortably, as you would with a colleague. Adopting a relaxed stance or posture is a trick that national television consultants earn a lot of money teaching anchors and reporters how to do. It’s as simple as avoid standing or sitting stiffly, as you’ll appear on edge and your voice might be more strident. Get comfortable—if your body is at ease, your mind will follow. Be aware of your body language because it can send unintentional messages. Crossing your arms across your chest sends a message that you are closed off and less approachable. Leaving your arms open or placing them at your side is better. Try to be as natural as possible.
Strive for a friendly but knowledgeable tone. Pretend you’re telling the checker at the grocery store about it—or even better, one of your patients. Bring your bedside manner skills and warmth to the interview. “Think about visuals that can help portray the complex data,” Wimmer said. “Rather than describing precisely what is happening, can you show me what’s happening or compare the before and after to provide a general idea? Even patients can serve in this capacity to speak to and illustrate through their experiences.”
Print and Online
Keep your talking points in front of you. This can help you maintain your focus during the interview. But be mindful to stay in the moment, and answer follow-up questions as needed.
Reiterate your message points at every opportunity. “I always want to make sure I represent my sources’ views and ideas accurately,” Sofia Jeremias, Innovation Lab reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune, said. “Expressing something a few different ways helps me do that. You may feel like you’re repeating yourself, [but] I often notice when reading through transcripts that the second or third time a source repeated an idea is often the most succinct, straightforward, and quotable version of their point.”
Be available to clarify any points as the writer is working on the story. This is perhaps the most effective strategy to increase the chances the story will be accurate. It’s appropriate to text or email the reporter later—before deadline—to make sure they have everything they need. “When I sit down to write a piece, that’s when I generally realize what information I missed during the interview process,” Jeremias said. “I also like to check back in with sources and make sure I understood them correctly. It’s always better to realize where I’ve gone wrong or misunderstood something before a piece publishes rather than having to issue a correction.”
Know the format. Is it live or recorded? If it’s being recorded, do multiple takes. Reporters do this frequently and are used to interviewees asking to start a thought again. It may feel awkward in the moment, but remember that what goes on-air is most important, and it’s good to get it right—even if that means a few takes.
Use verbal illustrations. “[Because] radio and podcasts depend only on audio to communicate your message, use language that helps the listener see what is being talked about,” Singpiel said. “Verbal illustration techniques, such as analogies, metaphors, and similes, are powerful tools to help paint the picture, and [it] makes the difference between an interview that connects and communicates your message to the listener and one that doesn’t.” For example, when experts talk with media about sun protection, they might describe the amount of sunscreen needed for the average adult as, ‘a shot glass full of sunscreen.’ This paints a picture for the listeners.
Talk with a lot of enthusiasm. “During the interview, smile,” Singpiel said. “Believe it or not, in an audio-only interview, smiling makes a huge difference. It adds energy to your voice.” Podcasts aim to take listeners on a journey. The host is like a tour guide, and bringing warmth and interest to your answers adds to the overall appeal.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed media interviews forever, and it appears that Zoom interviews are here to stay. For the best results, face a window for natural light or place a lamp in front of you, making sure it’s shining on your face. Overhead and fluorescent lighting only is generally unflattering. Elevate your computer with a box or books underneath. If your computer is at desk height, you’ll appear to be looking slightly downward, which is less flattering than looking straight at the camera on the same level.
Flores said it’s a common frustration for reporters when interviewees do not take time to check their lighting and web camera angle to make sure it looks good before joining the call. “I try my best to help them set up, [but] I’d rather they were prepped and ready. I could use that time to focus on the subject I’m covering,” she said. Avoid background filters. These tend to look strange and unnatural. Make sure what’s behind you is neat and tidy. Adjust your Zoom settings for low light and to improve your appearance, if desired. Check your Zoom image and name before joining the call to make sure both are professional.
Final Tips and Tricks
A few good manners go a long way in any interview. It’s a tough time to be a journalist, with shrinking newsrooms and low budgets. Journalism professionals are often overworked and underpaid. By helping make their jobs easier by following these tips, you can become a trusted, go-to source.
Bring a member of your public affairs team with you. Our role is to help you every step of the way and to share your successes. “If only the best birds sang, the forest would be silent,” Henry van Dyke, an American author, educator, and clergyman, once said. As physicians, you have incredible insights to share. Have courage and take the opportunity to share that wisdom through news stories.
Simonsen is the public affairs manager for Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and a member of the Public Affairs and Marketing Network.