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Great Interview. Nothing Bad Happened.

Listening to a recent Bloomberg interview with the new CEO of a name brand, but nascent startup, I couldn’t help but be disappointed as I heard him bridge and deflect the conversation to the point where he said little of substance and certainly nothing inspiring about his company. Everything was textbook media training.

To others who specialize in media coaching, this might have been a win with feedback like “Great interview! Nothing bad happened.” To me, it was a major missed opportunity.

PR and communications pros refer these type of clients to me. They want their CEO, or spokesperson, to be more interesting. What they don’t realize is that by teaching them to be a by-the-book talking head, instead of bringing their “whole self” to the interview, they’ve shut down the type of enthusiasm needed to override fear. They’ve created risk aversion in someone who leads by taking calculated risks.

You don’t hear people like Sir Richard Branson, or Mark Cuban relying on scripted lines to deliver a message do you? And if you did, would you respect them as thought leaders.

The problem is compounded when a CEO lacks the tools to step up the conversation. Sometimes they’ve figured out how to pivot, so they can get out of a corner, but they’re stuck in a conversational message-driven box. Others try to avoid this fate by “winging it” (defined as the act of not preparing for fear of sounding rote). Fortunately, many are savvy enough to know this isn’t how they want to show up. They crave the sweet taste of authenticity without the sour taste of a foot in the mouth.

If you, or someone you advise, wants to be seen as a visionary, a thought-leader, or innovator who’s going to put a company on the map, you want to go from “nothing bad happened” to a “mic drop moment.”

The good news is that with a shift in mindset and by preparing differently, we can start to be in a conversation instead of shutting one down. Here are 5 ways my clients continue to make that change.

  1. Bring your purpose (known as the why) to interviews. Know what you’d like the people reading or listening to do with your information and what’s at stake if they don’t, so there’s a reason to sit in the hot seat.

  2. Act like an ambassador, not an advisor. The reporter is a conduit, not an enemy. (Despite what they may ask). Yes, they might throw down a challenge, but by being a host to a world they don’t know — your company — the dynamic can be shifted. Perhaps they speak a few words of your language. That doesn’t make them fluent. If you’ve ever gone to another country with only a handful of words, you know how tricky this can be. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’re limited. By providing context, points of interest, and giving a reporter true insight into your world, you can create a conversation instead of a sparring contest.

  3. Know your boundaries. It’s amazing how many people go into an interview without thinking about this, even though they would never dream of going into a business meeting this way. When you do hit a boundary, start with the no and move to to the positive — don’t leave it hanging or end on a Debbie Downer note.

  4. Have a home base story. Without it you’ll be a passive player who waits for the question and hopes to find the opportunity. It’s really hard to stay in real time with someone when your brain is churning. When you put your narrative into an agenda, you have somewhere to take the reporter. This beats a random set of talking points without a logical flow or context. Or, getting dead-ended once you’ve hit your points.

  5. Come in with a few questions that help you calibrate your starting point and can guide information. Good rhetorical and direct questions, or a thought leading statement work wonders. “A lot of customers asked us why we…” or “If you’ve ever had a situation like XX, you may have experienced.” This last one should speak to the problem your company solves. Just remember if you ask a direct question to prepare for the yes and no answer.

These are just a few of the ways to stay real and make a connection, while navigating what can often be a perplexing exchange. And if you can’t work with a professional, start listening to interviews you love a little bit differently and borrow what you like, so you can do you, and take advantage of the opportunity at your next interview.

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