In the modern world of rolling news there is increasing demand on journalists to get a story out quickly.
That in turn means there is pressure on spokespeople to be available almost immediately, not in a few hours when it may be more convenient to them.
This has seen a rise in the number of down-the-line interviews – an interview, normally live, carried out away from the main studio where the spokesperson appears on screen in a separate box.
Often these are carried out from other regional news studios, but they can also take place in remote purpose built booths. During my time as comms manager I once arranged for a spokesperson to carry out a down-the-line interview from a particularly remote booth in the north of England where he had to let himself in and turn the equipment on.
Down-the-line interviews can also be carried out on location in the open air, where distractions like traffic and passers-by can also have an impact.
It is not that surprising then that delegates on our media training courses often tell us that they find this the most challenging and uncomfortable broadcast interview format.
So how do you handle them?
Here are five key tips you need to know:
The camera is always on
One of the key things to remember during a down-the-line interview is that the camera is always on you.
And body language in this format can speak volumes, particularly when listening.
That means you need to avoid any facial expressions that suggest displeasure or unease when the reporter asks a question or another interviewee is speaking.
It is also crucial to remember that the interview has not finished until you hear someone say that you are ‘clear’. So remain seated and looking at the camera even if you think the interview is over.
Attempts to leave earlier can lead to some very ugly endings as Labour politician Chuka Umunna showed on Sky News.
It is equally important to remember that you are likely to be recorded before the interview this starts. This is something Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe found to his cost earlier this year.
Know how many people are involved in the interview
Research has shown that when there is more than one interviewee and one of them is in the studio, that person typically gets the lion’s share of the airtime.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A down-the-line interview that stood in the mind for the right reasons saw Dr Clare Gerada take control of proceedings from the start with strong examples and anecdotes and a clear message. As a result, the majority of the interview was directed at her, while the other interviewee, who had the advantage of being in the studio, barely got a look-in.
If you do feel that you are playing second fiddle in the interview or are suffering regular interruptions, be forceful in getting your point across using phrases like ‘just let me finish’. Just try and remain polite.
Just like a regular interview, it is important to smile (unless you are delivering particularly bad news), and maintain eye contact. To maintain eye contact in this interview format your eye line must be steady and constant with the camera lens.
You need to look directly ‘down-the-barrel’ - of the camera.
Looking to left and right will make you appear nervous, but if you feel you need to momentarily look away, look down as that suggests you are thinking.
In a down-the-the line interview you will have to wear an earpiece to hear the journalist and this can feel uncomfortable and alien to people not used to wearing them.
To try to make this feel as normal as possible, put the earpiece in the ear you use to answer the phone.
If it falls out, simply pop it back in – don’t hold it to your ear as that looks odd and will be distracting for the audience.
Also don’t swear if you encounter any problems, as this spokesperson did on Good Morning Britain - the microphone still works.
Get to your message
Down-the-line interviews are often shorter than those carried out face-to-face. That means you have potentially even less time to get your message across.
It is therefore crucial that spokespeople take control of the interview from the start and use the opening question to get to the point they want to get across.
This was something Dr Gerada did in the interview we highlighted earlier, acknowledging the question she was asked before moving the question on to her message and backing it up with relatable examples.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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