In my myth-busting piece on what makes good media training, I talked about the concepts behind effective training for spokespeople. Now, given we media trainers are always banging on about being specific, it’s time to give you five concrete steps to a successful media interview – that is, one that you, the journalist and audience are all happy with.
First things first – as tempting as it might be to lump all journos into the category of hard-bitten news hounds who are out to skewer you with out-of-context misquotes, it would pay to remind yourself they come in as many different shapes and varieties as the rest of society and carry just as vast an array of experiences and opinions. The one thing they have in common is they usually have their audience top of mind. Before you leap to the question of ‘What’s my message and what am I going to say?’, you should first look at who will be interviewing you. What have they or their publication or program written/talked about and how? Do they appear to have any biases you need to address? What do they seem to be interested in or think is important? Being clear about what a journalist is interested in or sees as newsworthy helps a spokesperson to realistically work out suitable message opportunities and anticipate threats or difficult questions.
Stumbling into an interview simply because you were asked and without a clear idea of what you want to achieve is a missed opportunity at best and a potential disaster (especially if you haven’t anticipated a threat) at worst. Thinking about who will read, hear or watch the interview or resulting story will help you work out what key messages to include and the way you should do it. This not only helps you achieve a successful outcome but will usually mean you can give the journo (and their audience) something worthwhile – so, win-win-win.
While the media has the final say in what goes to air, print or online, you can help yourself by giving them quotes and information they can’t resist using. These irresistible gems, of course, will support your message. This doesn’t mean you have to repeat your message ad nauseum using the same phrases – it means you provide quotes, specific details and examples that help to make your point and create the impression you were hoping for. Keeping it brief means providing the details in a bite size but with enough specific or illustrative ‘seasoning’ to make it tasty for the journo and the audience. These morsels should be adjusted to suit the taste of journalist, outlet and audience you are speaking to (for instance, an industry publication might live with jargon that you would never use for a more general audience – but beware of assuming the audience will understand subject-specific terminology or references).
A journalist’s job is to question everything. That doesn’t mean they are out to get you – just that they often need to see through smoke screens to get to the real story. You may have nothing to hide but you may still get tricky questions (that intrude on privacy, probe for trade secrets or seek impossible guarantees, for example). A good journalist won’t let you get away with dismissing a question with ‘that’s a good question’ then talking about something else entirely. If you’ve done your preparation, you’re less likely to be caught out by a question and you should be ready to handle it – not, as many think, by ‘bridging’ right away from it and onto your ‘talking points’, which only makes you look like you’re hiding something. Good media training will show there is a better way, where a spokesperson is able to have a go at answering a difficult question (or giving a credible reason why it can’t be answered) and add on a message that’s newsworthy and of interest to the journalist’s audience.
‘Virtual’ interviews conducted online or for television are more about impressions than facts. After the interview, the audience is more likely to remember how you said something rather than what you said.
While much has been written and discussed over the years about eye and head movement, gestures, tone of voice and other body ‘tells’, I have seen less about managing your breathing. This is under-rated, I think, as a way of controlling nerves, thinking time, speed of delivery and the amount of information you try to squeeze into a sentence. You can read more about this, and other body language tips here.
Of course, there is a lot more to the five steps I have listed here. As concepts, they are pretty straightforward but, as with anything worth doing, doing it well takes practice. The biggest error many spokespeople make is mistaking bravado for confidence and going into interviews and other media appearances under-prepared, hoping that everything will be all right on the night.