Personal Branding and Preparing for the Surprise Interview

Personal Branding and Preparing for the Surprise Interview

When I lived in Indianapolis, I was one of the local social media experts the news stations called whenever they needed to interview someone about the crazy things teenagers were doing on social media. They would often call in the middle of the afternoon, and I'd have to run home to shave and change shirts for the interview.

In fact, it happened more than once, so you would think I would have learned and just stayed clean shaven and kept a nice shirt at the office. But I never did, so I would always have to race home, get ready, and have them meet me at my house for the interview.

Three years ago, I generated a little controversy and media attention when I quit as a travel writer for the Indiana Office of Tourism Development (IOTD), run by the Indiana state government. I quit in response to then-Governor Mike Pence signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. I submitted my resignation by email that morning, and published a blog article about it that afternoon.

This was not a real job. It was a freelance sideline gig that I'd been doing for six years, and maybe made $100 a month. I was only doing it because I liked writing about my home state, and I got to take small vacations around the state once in a while.

The story went viral and the article received 6,000 reads in one day

I figured it would get 10 or 12 visits, and that would be it. That's how most of my major important big-news articles seem to go over: I write them, worry about them, and no one sees them.

Instead, the story went viral and the article received 6,000 reads in one day, thanks to thousands of retweets, likes, and shares, as well as mentions in The Advocate magazine and The Bilerico Project, to name just a few.

And because of all the social media activity, I received a call at 4:00 PM from our local ABC affiliate, WRTV, asking for an interview.

"Uh, I'm wearing a t-shirt, and I haven't shaved today," I said.

"No problem," they said. "We can meet at your house in a couple hours." That gave me enough time to go home and get ready.

Luckily, I'd been through this with them before. They'd been at my house before for other social media news stories, and their videographer, Joe, had been there at least three times.

In the past, my interviews ended up being a couple 5-second soundbites for a short story that appeared in a later part of the broadcast.

That night, I was the second story on the 11:00 news, and my quitting was receiving national and international coverage.

Despite being caught off-guard about the interview, I still managed to get it done and not sound like a complete moron. It didn't hurt that I'd been in media relations and crisis communication for a couple of years either, so I knew how to prepare. It's a good thing too, because I ended up doing several interviews, including being interviewed by a San Francisco radio station and the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper.

I delivered the same message with the same language over and over, staying consistently on message every time, because I was prepared. It's the way I've prepared for every media interview for the last 12 years.

It's also the way I've prepared for every job interview I've ever gone on. In fact, the preparations are exactly the same.

Four Things to Do Before a Surprise Interview

These are the four things I did, and the things you need to know if you ever find yourself on the surprise end of a news interview, or even an impromptu job interview.

1. Work on key language

Part of what I wanted to make clear was that my quitting had nothing to do with the IOTD. They were (and are) wonderful people who have been very supportive of me over the years. This was only about the decision by the governor and legislature.

So I focused on the phrasing of a couple key sentences that would convey this. No nuances, no subtlety; I had to be very clear.

"I can't invite people to visit my state if they're not all welcome" was one I used over and over.

"This is not about the Tourism Office," I also said, over and over. "They're great people doing good work for Indiana."

And those ideas came through every time, because I focused on the best words that were easy to say and would reinforce the basic ideas.

2. Rehearse! 

I typically don't like to rehearse things I'm going to say, but in this case, I made sure I practiced those important sentences over and over. I didn't want to stumble over words and give the news producer a reason to cut my most important ideas.

So I made sure I could say my key sentences naturally and without tripping over words. My key phrase, "I can't invite people to visit my state if they're not all welcome" was an important one, and I had trouble with it in the beginning. So I rehearsed it in my car as I drove home.

When it comes to job interviews, it also helps to rehearse the answers to key questions. Whenever I've had a job interview come up, my wife would listen to the answers I planned to give, and give me advice on what I wanted to say. I did this several times to ensure that I was giving good answers, and never had to come up with something off the cuff. As long as I was consistent, I also never had to remember what I told anyone, and I could use the same answers every time.

3. Say only what you know

I had (and still have) very strong feelings about Indiana's RFRA law, but I knew I wasn't being interviewed about the law and its impact. They wanted to talk about why I had quit this job.

And while I was tempted to use this time to stump for the anti-RFRA cause, I knew better, because I wouldn't do a good job and would end up doing everyone a disservice. So instead, I focused on these three topics:

  • I believe in fair treatment for everyone, and this law was not fair.
  • I couldn't support a state government that couldn't support all of its own people.
  • This had nothing to do with the IOTD. I was proud to have been associated with them for six years.

Every answer I gave was related to one of those three ideas. I stressed each point several times, and made sure I always brought each question back to the issues of fairness and support. And when they put my interview together, those ideas came through.

4. You're always on

I am, by nature, a very friendly and outgoing person. But I know that when it comes to the media, there's no such thing as "just" a friendly conversation. Whatever you say can be used in their story, even when you think you're not on. This is not a time to joke, share personal information, or say something in confidence.

When you're dealing with someone with a camera and a microphone (or if you're interviewing for a job), always assume you're on. The camera is always running, and the interviewer is always in Gather mode. That means anything you say during that time is fair game, including jokes, personal information, and things said in confidence.

So that would not have been a good time to make jokes about the governor or the uproar this had caused. It would not have been the time or place to take potshots at the pro-RFRA side. And I certainly should not have talked about anything other than what they were there to interview me for.

It's the same with job interviews: you're there to talk about a possible job. Don't make jokes or talk about personal interests, unless it has to do do with the interview. Don't pontificate on social topics or share your political views. And don't share your thoughts on the lizard people who are putting on human suits and ruling the world.

Always assume that you're on from the moment you enter the building or you meet the journalist and photographer. And you're not clear until you're in your car or they've left. Don't say anything, do anything, or act in any way that runs counter to your message. You're basically on from the moment you show up at their door, or they show up at yours.

As long as you remember these four steps and can be prepared with your message, you can handle any interview that comes your way, media, job, or otherwise. Just remember to act like a professional, keep your ideas short and easy to understand, and don't let your guard down even for a minute.

Also, never look at the camera.

Check out these additional articles about personal branding.


Erik Deckers is the president of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency with clients throughout the United States. He is also the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and a newspaper humor columnist since 1994. He has written several radio and stage plays, and numerous business articles. Erik was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL, and now serves on their board of directors.

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