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20 years

Friday, June 3, 2011

Oprah’s Lessons Live On


Before ending last week after 25 years on the air, Oprah’s talk show made celebrity and newsmaker interviews a staple of afternoon TV fare. Her high-profile show not only provided entertainment and information to millions of viewers; it also offers up a number of stark lessons on preparing for an interview.

1.   Keep your composure
      Incident: Film superstar Tom Cruise had always been seen as a man with poise . . . until this interview which has become a YouTube classic. When Oprah asked about his relationship with then-girlfriend Katie Holmes, Cruise’s explosive and inexplicable on-air display of emotion altered the public perception of him to this day.

      CommCore Lesson: We remind our clients to be prepared for all types of questions – positive and negative.  Above all to maintain self control when talking with the media.

2.   Admitting to a lie
      Incident:  When Oprah heard that author James Frey’s book about his addictions, “A Million Little Pieces” -- a book she had added to her prestigious book club -- was not the pure non-fiction Frey had said it was on her show, she was less than pleased. She asked Frey back a second time to explain himself. Frey, to his credit, agreed. She scolded him on-air, saying that she felt “duped,” and forced him to walk through all his fabrications one-by-one. When Frey apologized for his actions and demonstrated real contrition, Oprah forgave him, famously saying, I appreciate you being here because I believe the truth can set you free. I realize this has been a difficult time for you ... maybe this is the beginning of another kind of truth for you.”

CommCore Lesson:  We tell clients that if they cannot counter damaging allegations with conviction and the facts to back it, they should acknowledge the criticism, show genuine contrition where appropriate, and explain how they will change their future actions. (Obviously if there is litigation exposure, there are limits to public comments.)

3.   Practice answering difficult questions
Incidents:  In 1993, before allegations of child abuse had become public, she asked Michael Jackson, “Are you a virgin?” In 2009, she conducted a two part interview with Whitney Houston, detailing her abusive relationship with Bobby Brown and heavy drug abuse. In the same year she interviewed MacKenzie Phillips, who admitted to an incestuous relationship with her father.

CommCore Lesson:
Though these are extreme examples involving celebrities, any subject to an interview should expect a reporter to ask the hard questions…the ones that make you uncomfortable and maybe even catch you off-guard. So when you are preparing, list out the questions you hope the interviewer won’t ask and practice answering them first.  Watch for your body language and eye contact. Also practice bridging the conversation back to the topic you want to focus on after acknowledging the question. Or else just decline to do the interview.
What lessons have you learned from Oprah’s 25 years of broadcast interviews?

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