Publishers and book publicists do a number of things to help authors prepare for interviews. Sometimes—and especially when national media interviews, like NPR and the morning TV shows, are at stake—they hire media coaches. But sometimes that may not be practical, so it makes sense to help authors do media training on their own.
What a Coach Contributes
Media coaches are usually people who have worked extensively in broadcast media, often as television or radio hosts. As a result, they understand the time constraints, end goals, and thought processes behind broadcast media better than anyone else.
Publishing houses hire media coaches to work with authors for blocks of time—anywhere from three hours to a full eight-hour day—several weeks before interviews are set to take place. A coach will have read the book in question and accessed the full press kit.
With this background knowledge, the coach sits down with the author and discusses the “Why?” of the book, fleshing out the most important talking points and making the case for why readers should pick it up. In a sense, coaches help authors refamiliarize themselves with what they wrote and examine their books as if they had never read them before.
After establishing the talking points, a coach helps an author get comfortable talking about these concise, easy-to-remember ideas that will appeal to listeners and viewers. It’s one thing to feel at ease talking about a book with one’s editor, publicist, or significant other; it’s a completely different ballgame to discuss a book and its merits with a stranger, let alone before a large audience.
Coaches have all kinds of tips and tricks to help authors make the most of their interviews, from stressing the importance of repetition (it is most emphatically a good thing to repeat your core ideas and phrases; that’s how you ensure your message hits home) to providing techniques for taking difficult, controversial, or nonsensical questions and answering them in a way that gets your own point across, regardless of the answer a host may be seeking.
One such coaching method is to have an author take part in multiple mock interviews, answering sample question after sample question in varying formats. Often coaches tape the interviews so that they can watch and critique them with the author afterward.
While the methods may vary, the end result of media coaching is the same: Authors feel more prepared and more comfortable when they are interviewed about their books. They have the confidence and the practice to handle curveballs because they know exactly how to talk about their work no matter how a question is phrased.
Media Training on Your Own
Authors can complete a number of tasks on their own to prepare for media interviews about their books. Here’s a to-do list:
Reread your book. Sometimes when I ask an author about the press materials I’ve drafted for a book or a specific point made in it, the author will stop me and say, “Gee, it’s actually been a while since I read that part of the book. Let me go back and check.”
After authors have submitted their manuscripts (typically well before publication) and the manuscripts have been accepted, they often want to take a step back from the materials they’ve been dealing with for months (if not years) on end. Understandably! But, of course, come interview time, the author won’t be able to tell a show host, “Hold on one moment. Let me refer back to that quote in the book and figure out what I meant.”
It’s extremely important for authors to reread their own books and refresh their knowledge of characters, plot lines, dates, details, conclusions, and so on. The act of rereading the book cover to cover several months after finishing work on it may itself be refreshing; you might just feel as if you’re reading the book in its entirety for the first time.
Create a list of talking points. This is especially important for nonfiction. Talking points typically address the basic who-what-where-when-why-how questions about a book and about the writing process behind it.
The talking points should be concise and easy to remember, and they should express the basic tenets the book is built upon. While it’s depressing to know that many show hosts don’t read the books before they do interviews, that is indeed the norm. In many cases, you’re lucky if they’ve glanced at the press materials.
But if you have a list of major points/themes/takeaway ideas prepared, you can help guide the conversation and ensure that the message you want conveyed about the book is actually conveyed.
Practice, practice, practice interviewing. There’s truth to the saying that practice makes perfect. You wouldn’t go to your piano recital without having practiced your piece countless times, and you wouldn’t give a speech in front of a big group without having drawn up notes and practiced saying it repeatedly.
The same thinking applies to talking about a book on TV or radio. Additionally, because there are different interview formats (magazine style versus morning drive-time versus interviews that include one-on-ones with the host as well as listener call-ins), you’ll want to research the shows you’re scheduled for to see which format each uses. You’ll also want to practice different ways of answering questions about your book to be ready for each type of show structure. You don’t want to get on the air having practiced only long-format interviews and find out that you have just five minutes of air time and 20 seconds to answer each question.
Videotape yourself being interviewed and watch the tape afterward. It can be a bit of a shock to see yourself on camera for the first time (and not just because “the camera adds 10 pounds”). You may realize that you have a nervous tic (touching your jewelry, waving your hands, brushing a hand through your hair) or that you say things (like “Ummm” or “Well”) before each answer.
After seeing yourself unconsciously do these things, you can consciously work to correct them. For a professional appearance, you’ll want to wear clothes that are solid colors (not busy patterns) and keep the accessories to a minimum. Try to remember to maintain proper posture and solid eye-contact, both of which will give you the air of a confident expert.
Stay up to date on relevant headlines. If you’ve written a book about presidential politics during an election year, or if you’ve written a book about the Great Depression during a down economic year, chances are that your interviewers will be asking you to draw parallels to the present day, or even asking you flat out what your predictions are, based on your book and the research it entailed.
Furthermore, if you’ve written a current events book (let’s say it’s about the Middle East), you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what’s going on in the area it covers and be able to field questions about news stories that tie into the area—whether or not the questions are directly related to the material in your book.
Even authors of fiction may find interviewers focusing on ties to current events, so, as a media coach would remind you, it pays to be prepared.
Christina Mamangakis is a publicity manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Prior to that, she worked for Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and W.W. Norton & Company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.