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Steve Clarke, CEO WHSmith, How to Master your first TV interview

How to master a TV interview

The question of how to master a TV interview is raised by people from all walks of life.

Take, for example, someone running a high-profile business doing much better than the sector.

Your results are out in the morning and they reflect well on the business​.

So you have a good story to tell​.

BBC Breakfast News wants to interview you and broadcast it in prime time​.

But there’s just one snag​.

This will be your first ever TV interview​.

So do you turn it down to stay safe?​

Or take the opportunity and capitalise on the moment?​

What did the Chief Executive of WHSmith decide to do?​

Read on.

The TV business

How to Master a TV Interview, Business Leader, TV Business

When I presented BBC Breakfast News in the 90s, we sought out business leaders​.

We wanted them to explain more about the companies people had heard of​.

But many turned us down​.

Some were aloof, while others afraid of it all going wrong​.

Today every business leader needs to be media-savvy​.

They must be able to present well at conferences and come across well on radio and TV​.

So Steve Clarke knew this was a golden opportunity to explain more about WHSmith.​

He’s been with the company for 15 years, the last six as Chief Executive​.

And today they were announcing a one per cent rise in profits​.

Without closing any stores​.

Now that may seem modest​.

But this week M&S had revealed a 10% fall in profits​.

Arcadia had closed more clothes shops​.

And Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain had collapsed​.

So how do you get your message across on TV?​

What are the perils and pitfalls of a broadcast interview?​

Should you take the opportunity of going on TV to sell your message at all?​

Steve Clarke did, and gave a master class in delivering a great TV interview​.

Which is a huge achievement given that this was his first.

So what did he do?​

And what can we learn from so we can take the same opportunity?​

Here are seven key principles Steve followed to achieve his success.

1. Know your big message

How to Master a TV Interview, TV Presenter. Know Your Big Message

First, write a list of things you want to say.

Top of the list should be your big point. ​

Steve Clarke’s big point was about business rates​.

He believes firms are being ‘taxed out of business’​.

Because business rates are too high​.

I know this because he emphasised the point throughout his answers.

It’s step one of how to master a TV interview.

2. Be reasonable

How to Master a TV Interview, Colin Stone, Be Thoroughly Reasonable

The interviewer wanted to know why railway station and airport shops were more expensive than high street stores​.

Mr Clarke explained that running costs are higher when business rates are higher.

Which is very reasonable.

But rather than just accept the point, he brought perspective​.

Many items are the same price in both airport and in city centres.

3. Prepare for awkward questions

This is an underrated aspect of how to master a TV interview.

Many will go well until awkward questions unsettle the interviewee​.

But Mr. Clarke was ready when he was asked about stores that looked run-down.

Again he explained that some stores attract investment because they’re profitable.

But others are awarded less investment because they’re less profitable.

The CEO’s ‘A’ list is made up of points he wants to make​.

His ‘B’ list will be awkward questions he expects to be asked​.

We suggest to clients on our media training courses always to prepare a ‘B’ list.

Then practise your answers to the awkward questions.

That way you can embrace the difficult question.

Rather than let slip your annoyance at it being asked.​

4. Watch your pace and tone

How to Master a TV Interview, TV Crew, Watch Pace and Tone

When the interview turns up the heat, it’s easy to start to race​.

As if talking faster will end the interview more quickly.

In fact, you’ll just lose control​.

A slow delivery displays confidence, a key aspect of how to master a TV interview.

As do slight pauses between points or even sentences​.

And when you talk slowly, there’s time to add emphasis.

So the audience has more belief in what you’re saying​.

5. Mind your body language

How to Master a TV Interview, Steve Clarke, Mind your Body Language

It’s also easier to look more tense in response to awkward questions.

But that’s again counter-productive.

Because you want to remain looking relaxed and happy to answer all questions.

Steve smiled at times through his responses to criticism.

His hand gestures were open.

And his eye contact with the reporter remained strong​.

6. Be candid

How to Master a TV Interview, TV Crew, Be Candid

Many people fear being open with the media. ​

​They expect their vulnerability to be exploited. ​

But England Head Coach Gareth Southgate demonstrated last summer that being open wins trust​.

He asked his players to be candid about the challenges many had faced​.

About their upbringing​.

Their fitness.

And their mental health​.​

The result was more positive coverage of an England team than at any time in the past 20 years​. ​

Steve Clarke was open in two areas​.

​He agreed it was painful to hear criticism of a business he works hard to improve.

​Then he referred to a promise he’d made to his husband about taking time off.

Leaving himself exposed to potential prejudice.

​He could have said ‘partner’.

​But his openness won my admiration and I’m sure that of many others​.

7. Keep it simple from start to finish

He could have used property jargon when talking about business rates.

Or commercial jargon when talking about investment in stores​.

Because he’s a big cheese​.

Instead he kept it simple.

So anybody watching would understand.

And that ensured that I could follow what he was saying.

And repeat his message.

Simple language allows people to repeat what they’ve heard​.

And it gives us confidence that we understand what’s being said​.

It allows the message to be re-iterated​.

Rather than re-interpreted​.

Or worse still, misinterpreted.

Simplicity is another key in how to master a TV interview.

The finished interview

How to Master a TV interview, Steve Clarke, the finished interview

So what was the net result of following these seven rules?

Mr Smith capitalised on his firm’s strong performance​.

Answered his critics over price differences and investment in stores.

And put himself in the shop window for another top job​.

Once he’s recharged his batteries and spent time with the people closest to him.​

An impressive example of how to master a TV interview, which you can watch here.

Which should give everybody encouragement. ​

If you simply follow the rules and practise them in advance.


Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Images and footage of Steve Clarke courtesy of BBC One.

Photos by boellstiftung / CC BY-SA / laverrue / CC BY / jurvetson / CC BY / Tim Dorr / CC BY-SANorth Charleston / CC BY-SA on
Photos 2 & 7 by Murray Wilson.

30th May 2019 Featured in: Blog, Media training blogs By:

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