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Are you ready for your close-up?

When the news broke after Prince’s April 21 death that the music superstar apparently didn’t leave a will, prospective heirs to his fortune started coming out of the woodwork. And when that happened, news outlets far and wide did likewise, wanting to talk to Twin Cities probate and estate planning attorneys about what it all meant.

Chris Burns

Chris Burns

At least one local attorney had a moment in the national spotlight as the story progressed. Henson Efron shareholder Christopher Burns appeared in a ‘Good Morning America’ segment last month about how Minnesota’s laws could affect the fate of Prince’s estate.

“‘Good Morning America’ called KSTP-TV, and they called me,” said Burns. “Fortunately, I had some experience doing TV.”

It’s fair to say that most attorneys don’t have the experience of facing a TV news camera — and might not be sure what to do if that happens. Local media training specialists say that while the prospect of appearing on camera might be nerve-racking, the reality usually is not. “They’re trying to get useful facts to share with the public,” said Burns. “I think most lawyers would find it to be an enjoyable experience.”

“It’s OK for lawyers to recognize that the rules of TV can be a little scary,” said Paul Maccabee, president of the Minneapolis-based Maccabee public relations and marketing firm. “If you stutter or stumble when you’re talking to a print journalist, they’re not going to put that in their story. If you do that on TV, it might end up on the air.”

The best way to avoid appearing awkward is to prepare. If you’re called for comment by a TV news reporter, buy some time and find out when the reporter’s deadline is and promise to call back. Using that time to construct a few key messages on the topic can help create a much smoother on-camera experience.

“You don’t have to answer on the fly,” said Maccabee. “In fact, that’s a bad way of giving your input.”

Burns said he puts together handful of answers for the questions he anticipates being asked. “I type those up or email them to myself so I have them handy,” he said. “I go through them beforehand so I don’t have to refer to my notes when I’m on camera. Being prepared like that makes me better able to answer questions that maybe I didn’t anticipate.”

Keep it short

Walt Parker, a senior vice president with Weber Shandwick in Bloomington, notes that providing a soundbite to a TV news reporter might be counterintuitive to your training as a lawyer: Instead of delivering a pile of evidence leading to a conclusion, you start with the conclusion. For that reason, he recommends making your first sentence a succinct, declaratory sentence that will stand alone. “A soundbite should be the first thing out of your mouth,” he said.

If the interviewer has several questions, Parker advises remembering that there’s no need to babble just because you feel as though you’re being counted on to carry the conversation.

“It’s not like a social conversation,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of a pregnant pause. You can stop talking once you’ve made your point.”

If you’ve never appeared on TV news before, there are ways to prepare. If your firm has someone who handles marketing and media, have them conduct a mock interview on a chosen subject and film it with a video camera or smartphone. If your firm doesn’t have someone in that capacity, you can hire a media consultant for less than $150 an hour who will do a mock interview.

“That way you can see if you’re rocking back and forth in your chair, or blinking too much, or not blinking at all,” said Maccabee.

Embrace the opportunity

Some more tips for appearing on TV news:

  • If you feel compelled to clear your throat, don’t. Pause instead.
  • Don’t avoid letting your humanity show through. You can smile or be funny when it’s appropriate.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how your comments will be used.
  • Encourage the reporter to call back if he or she needs to double-check anything.
  • Don’t look at the camera. You’re supposed to be having a conversation with the reporter sitting next to the camera operator.
  • Stay away from bright, loud clothing. Anything that you’d wear before a judge is probably OK.
  • Don’t insist on having your firm’s logo in the background of the shot. The firm will be identified in the report.
  • In a taped interview, it’s OK to ask to start your response over. The reporter wants to get a coherent answer as much as you want to provide one.

Most of all, embrace the opportunity to speak to a vast audience about a subject in which you have authoritative knowledge.

“Lawyers are trained to be risk-averse, but the risk of offering your thoughts to a TV news story is minimal,” said Maccabee. “Thirty-five seconds of insightful commentary on a WCCO-TV newscast could mean a new client.”

About Dan Heilman

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