What your body language tells reporters

It’s not what you say but how you say it. Those words from my mother have echoed in my head for decades. Now that I coach executives on how to get the most from media interviews, I realize how important that concept is to their success.

We work a lot with companies to create their messaging, and spend a significant amount of time discussing the specific words to use to capture just what makes our clients unique.

Despite this work, we know an interview will fall short unless we also pay careful attention to the delivery of the message. Here are the body language traps we see most often, and tips on how executives can break free from these habits:

Demeanor. Your physical demeanor is like a gate. If it’s not welcoming, the reporter may never see past it into the wonderful garden of ideas you have. Crossing your arms makes you look defensive and closed off. Checking your watch gives the impression that you would rather be elsewhere. Twisting in your chair, picking at your nails or fidgeting indicates impatience and disinterest. All these habits send the wrong idea to a reporter. An excellent way to discover how you come across to others is to watch yourself on video. Since most demeanor issues are subconscious, executives are surprised to see themselves fidgeting and looking disengaged.

Tone. The tone you take during an interview has a lot to do with its success. Since most interviews today are done by telephone, it’s important to ensure that your tone is energetic. A number of years ago, I was sitting in the room with an executive when he addressed investors during an earnings call. To me he seemed confident and upbeat about the future. To my colleague, who listened to the call on a phone line, he sounded tired and distracted. For this reason, we always counsel our clients to stand during phone interviews because their voices almost always sound more energetic.

If nerves are an issue, simple exercises like the ones done during meditation will calm you and give you greater control over your tone and demeanor. Prior to the interview, try breathing in through your nose to a count of three then exhaling through your mouth to a count of five. Squeeze your hands into a fist during the inhale then open your fingers slowly during the exhale. Notice that your body feels warmer and more relaxed.

Finally, sarcasm doesn’t always come through as funny and can sound bitter, so try to avoid it.

Pace. It is natural to talk quickly when you’re nervous or under pressure to get your message out to a reporter. Unfortunately, fast speakers can quickly overwhelm reporters and derail an interview. Speak at a tempo slow enough for the listener to absorb the material. If you’re nervous, speak slow enough that you feel you’re speaking unnaturally slow…the pace will be just about right. Throughout the interview, touch base to make sure the reporter understands what you’re saying by asking questions like, “Does this make sense to you?”

Manners. The same manners that your mother taught you are crucial during an interview. If you’re meeting with reporters in person, look them in the eye and shake hands firmly. When using an Internet service like Skype, resist the temptation to look at the small box in the corner of the screen. Instead, speak directly to the camera on your computer. Develop a warm greeting for phone interviews. Thank the reporter for his interest and time.

Remember that interviewing skills improve with practice. Be open to and seek constructive criticism. Review video and audio tapes when possible. Then, work on fixing one issue at a time.

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