Presence Under Pressure
Taking charge of media interviews

Senior executives receive training on how to work with the media

Just by scanning the room, senior executives attending a media training seminar got a sense of what the day would hold. This was day three of the 3.5-day Presence Under Pressure: An Executive Course, a high-impact training program designed specifically for Senior Executive Service members. For the day’s agenda, the room was set up a little differently from the two previous days. Two chairs at the front of the room were positioned so that people taking a seat would face each other. Nearby stood a video camera on a tripod, a bright light illuminating one chair and a large television monitor.

The day’s topic was media training—that much participants knew. But they soon realized that would entail being interviewed on camera, in full view of everyone in the room. And they would have to watch themselves on TV, while others critiqued their performance.

“We all had that shared terror,” said one participant, who nevertheless described the exercise as a good bonding experience.

Bill Connor and Susan Tomai, the two principals of Oratorio, a media and presentation training company, ran the session. They asked each participant to write down a topic, an audience and a goal, followed by three specific messages they wanted to communicate that directly related to their agency positions.

Topics participants chose for their on-camera interviews ranged from promoting agency job openings to requesting money from Congress to publicizing a division’s professional development opportunities.

Throughout the session, Connor and Tomai helped participants “own the interview” so they could get their message out. They taught them specific strategies to develop effective sound bites and cultivate an engaging on-camera personality.

“You shouldn’t be afraid of the questions you’ll be asked, because you should already know what you’re going to say”

When participants stepped into the makeshift studio for their mock interviews, Connor played the part of the pushy news anchor, trying to throw them off their intended message by asking unexpected questions or launching into long-winded speeches about past government hiccups.

From tough questions about why the Federal Emergency Management Agency can be trusted when it has “dropped the ball” in the past to whether the travel ban was a direct violation of the Constitution, participants learned how to acknowledge the reporter’s questions (without accepting the underlying premises), and then pivot to their intended messages.

The next step was watching themselves on the television monitor, while receiving feedback from Connor, Tomai and other participants.

Watching her recorded performance allowed one participant to “see how I present myself and become more self-aware.”

Connor and Tomai offered specific feedback about each performance, often pausing the video to make a certain point. They explained where participants should put their hands during a televised interview, how to gesture effectively, when to interrupt the reporter—and how to do it most effectively.

Each participant did several on-camera interviews. Connor and Tomai taught the participants how to manage stage fright using “power poses” and breathing exercises. However, they said the best way to feel comfortable on camera is to be prepared.

Even those SES members who might not have much of an opportunity to work with the media said the session was valuable and that the lessons could transfer easily to other scenarios, like giving a presentation.

When the training was over, and each participant had completed two or three on-camera interviews, many of them requested copies of their videos. They wanted them as a reminder of the strategies they had learned, the pitfalls they needed to avoid and the progress they had made.

In only one day of training, each participant not only learned ways to improve their interview skills, but they became more comfortable using them each time they sat back down in front of the camera.