Ask Tania: I'm media-terrified. How do I promote my work without putting my foot in it?

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dear Tania, 

I'll get straight to the point. I'm media-terrified. Interviews unnerve me, as I never know what question is coming, if my responses will sound dumb, if I'm saying the wrong thing, or--worst of all--if I don't even know what to say. This is also a worry when I need to do presentations. How do I promote my work without putting my foot in it?


Hi, J,

You are not alone! Even the most seasoned creators experience angst and nerves before an interview or speaking engagement. I don't think I'll ever get used to it, personally, and there's been times where I've literally not slept the night before, I've been so angst-ridden. 

I think the first thing to remember is that feeling nervous is absolutely normal, and is a human  reaction that almost everyone experiences, no matter how confident or seasoned they are. When we really absorb this knowledge and really embrace it, we feel a lot better about ourselves.

I also think that 90% of nerves are anticipation. It's all in the lead-up. It's the 'unknown' that unnerves us (and indeed, you expressed this in your question--not knowing what's coming). Once we're actually IN the interview or the talk, most of the angst melts away as we are operating in the Now, and are not pre-thinking or pre-empting what might happen next.

Of course, there are some people who do pre-think and pre-empt during their interview or talk, and when this happens, mouths dry up, voices start shaking, and stage fright sets in, sometimes rendering the speaker mute. If you find yourself experiencing any of these things (I have once or twice), focus on the moment and what's happening in the Now. Focus on the question, pause, take a deep breath and a drink of water, then speak from the heart. The angst levels will drop rapidly if you can do this.

The second most important thing to remember is that people really do want you to succeed. Audiences and interviewers want a great talk and a great interview. They don't want you to struggle or be fearful. If you're speaking in front of an audience and your voice starts to shake, the audience will feel either awkward or sorry for you, or will feel compelled to back you and ease your fears. Look for an audience member who might be smiling, or engaging you with eye contact, but above all, remember that they do want you to succeed. Better yet, make light of your shaking voice--mention it and have a laugh. Tell the audience you're nervous. Be real.

In all the radio interviews I've done over the years, I've only ever experienced two that were a little 'difficult'--both in terms of confronting questions and/or accusations or inferences, and in terms of the general 'feel' of things. So they're very rare. And I've only experience one talk that was uncomfortable--where the audience was unresponsive and some audience members were cold.

I got through these by being 100% myself, by laughing, by allowing myself to fumble and make mistakes, to make light of those mistakes, and to admit when I didn't know something or couldn't answer a question. 

Once, during a radio interview, the host kept asking inappropriate questions and I just outright told him I wasn't comfortable answering that question, or that the question was irrelevant to the work. He backed off immediately and went onto the next question.

Another great way to skip over a question that you don't want to answer is to respond with a one word answer and then stay silent. It's the host's job to carry the interview, not yours. And good interviewers will immediately sense your reluctance, and happily divert. Bad interviewers will persist or even get snarky--and that's solely their own agenda and has nothing to do with you. I would more than happily end an interview if I was being abused in some way--would not even hesitate (I think that would be exceedingly rare).

On that note, don't ever feel threatened by silence in an interview or talk of any kind. What feels like a half-hour pause to you is only a few seconds in reality, and never feels long to the listener. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you literally don't know what to say, perhaps ask for the question again, and then look for elements in the question that will lead you to something else--or something related to that same topic. If you're still stumped, just tell it is like it is: say you're not sure.

If you are lighthearted, 100% yourself, and 100% real, you really can't go wrong in any speaking situation. And if an interviewer or an audience member is a jerk, trust me when I say the listeners/rest of audience will see it, and it won't be you they'll be rolling their eyes at.

For one of my books, that sometimes attracted externalised political questions, I asked my publicist to pre-inform hosts that I wouldn't be answering political questions (indeed, I was unable to, due to my husband's work). I asked if we could please make it about the book, and nothing else--and every interviewer honoured that. So, that's also an option if you find interviewers becoming consistently pushy over something inappropriate.

I have this saying that I always tell myself whenever I speak publicly:

I know my stuff.

I don't give a stuff. 

I can't even tell you how much this helps with nerves. The fact is, I DO know my stuff, as do you. Anything I'm speaking on or talking about is 100% my knowledge and my experience/work, so I know I can always speak with authority and confidence. And if I'm asked a question that's outside my world, I simply say 'I don't know' or 'not sure, but you could ask this person/organisation'. This doesn't make you look like an idiot. It makes you look real, self-effacing and honest. People love that.

The other is to not give a stuff. When you're speaking or being interviewed, your goal is not to have everyone love and adore you. Your goal is to fulfill the concepts and messages related to the event/topic at hand. So, deliver them, then let go.  

A good thing to remember is that each person will take your words and concepts in different ways and there is absolutely nothing you can do about that. People see and hear through filters and lenses that have nothing to do with you. They twist and manipulate meaning (whether positively or negatively) to suit their own agenda and beliefs. So why stress over what people will think when you speak? It's pointless because if someone wants to think ill of you, you could be pooping rainbows and flowers, and they'll still find fault.

If someone is ever rude or demeaning to you (so very rare!), remember that audiences can see or hear who's being the jerk, and if they can't, they're not worth worrying about anyway.

As for saying something 'stupid', again you are not alone. We all do it. I do it more that I'd like! and it's either from nerves or trying to be funny or goodness knows what--sometimes we just say things we don't mean, or they come out the wrong way. I've made comments during my talks that I STILL have a physical reaction over, years later. I worry what people will think of me over those comments, and again, this is normal! But we really have to remember that if people want to judge us over one comment or slip of the tongue, that says more about them than you.

As for saying something that's taken out of context or even misquoted, I've also been on the receiving end of that, as have most people. It's something that comes with the territory and, unless it's libel, you just have to brush off, no matter how seemingly unfair. I had a journalist from the Canberra Times put her own spin on a long interview for my book Beijing Tai Tai, conjecturing and adding her own two cents to my personal, actual experiences (ie: putting words in my mouth). This is a no-no in journalism, as an interview is NOT about the journalist (just as editing is not about the editor). I'm still surprised the newspaper editor let this one through, but I do realise now that the journalist was enormously inexperienced, and would never get far in her career if she continued to condescend her interviewees.

Remember that all interviews, print, radio, TV, disappear quickly. People don't remember them, and will soon be onto the next thing. 

J, I know everything I've said is probably nothing new to you! I'm also aware that, in the heat of the moment, no amount of philosophising can help. But these things really are worth rehashing, because they're true. And if you can actively live them and repeat them over and over in your mind as your career grows and expands, you'll find yourself far less anxious before any kind of interview or speaking engagement.

Some authors I know have taken public speaking courses, and some have even taken stand-up comedy courses, to help with their speaking journey, and there are many other ways you can up your confidence. Here are some overall tips and reminders for dealing with interviews and talks:


  • look your interviewer up online; read their bio and find a photo of them--I find this really helps personalise the experience
  • ask if the interview will be live or pre-recorded, and how long it will go for
  • prepare a handful of questions and answers that are likely to crop up
  • make dot points of responses to questions you might expect overall
  • have your book on hand, perhaps with some pages marked if you want to read extracts
  • have numbers and statistics and quotes on hand if you think they may arise
  • have a glass of water nearby
  • if you're doing a phone interview at home, be sure your surroundings are quiet
  • speak evenly and slowly--don't rush
  • pauses are good; silence is good; don't be afraid of either
  • be open and warm with your host--they want you to succeed
  • try not to say 'um'; this is enormously distracting for the listener; I once listened to a woman use the word 'um' every three or four beats--it was so horrendous, I had to change the station; so be aware of them--pause and take a breath rather than fill it with 'um'
  • take long, slow deep breaths before and during the interview (and after!)
  • listen carefully to the questions and don't pre-empt things or get lost in other thoughts, as you may miss the question
  • if you do miss the question, or don't understand it, ask to hear it again
  • be sure to actually answer the question (unless you don't want to!) and don't go off on tangents
  • say 'I don't know' or change the subject if topics become difficult 
  • for questions you absolutely don't want to answer, take it and lead to something else 'that reminds me of...' 'that leads to a bigger issue...' 'that's the same as when...' this is called 'bridging'
  • if the interviewer says something you disagree with or that's inaccurate, don't hesitate to disagree and then state your case calmly and warmly 
  • if the interviewer leaves a pause to try to incite you to more comment, refuse it (if uncomfortable); stay silent--the interview is their responsibility, not yours
  • if you do say something in error or 'put your foot in it', correct yourself straight away; laugh
  • be clear and succinct--don't elaborate too much on one topic, and know when to shut up
  • don't talk over the host
  • relax and be informal; laugh, respond to banter, keep things light
  • be 100% yourself, warts and all
  • know your stuff, don't give a stuff


  • know your audience and speak at their level
  • make it about your work or presi content, not about you
  • organise your content in advance and have it all ready to go 
  • practice your presi for length and stick to your presentation time frame; ask for a 5-minute warning bell, if needed (I always do)
  • don't speak too fast or too slow; take consistent pause, especially between topics
  • don't pace or make repetitious movements (brushing aside a fringe, pushing up glasses)
  • stop with the umming 
  • speak loudly--make sure everyone can hear you
  • vary the tone of your voice so it doesn't become monotone
  • never read out the dot-points on your slides; use them as reference only
  • look around the room, not at one person
  • if someone is scowling at you, know that 99% of the time, they're not upset with you--some people just have odd or negative resting/listening faces--seriously!
  • if someone is being openly hostile or rude, rolling their eyes or giving you evils, DO NOT LOOK AT THEM AGAIN! completely ignore them
  • be clear and brief, especially when asked questions
  • try to speak off-the-cuff, without reading notes--you may surprise yourself how much better your talk is when you trust yourself to speak on the spot
  • watch for audience boredom and adjust your energy to suit
  • if you have a PowerPoint presi, make the slides attractive and actually viewable! no odd colours or bad contrast/lighting/small type and images/typos
  • display your books nearby
  • mention any book signings at the end--don't rely on your host to let people know
  • leave enough time for questions at the end 
  • leave handouts to the end (they are popular)
  • relax and be informal; laugh, respond to banter, keep things light
  • take deep breaths and sip water when needed
  • remember, your audience wants you to succeed
  • be 100% yourself, warts and all
  • know your stuff, don't give a stuff  
  • see my post on Presenting Brilliant Presentations.

I wish you the very best on your interview and speaking journey!


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1 comment:

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Great post, as usual, Ms Tania! So much informative, understanding and positive advice - I reckon this one is definitely worth bottling. :)

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