Fortunately, crafting memorable messages and turning around “gotcha” questions are skills that can be learned — assuming, of course, that you acknowledge you want some help. Read on for some media-savvy lessons and six tips from Spirou and Associates who have been there and done that.
Never wing it!
The first lesson is not to wing it. Just because you’re immersed in some subject every day doesn’t mean you can spontaneously pull on the right threads to weave a public performance.
The fundamentals always come down to preparation. Whether you work with a professional coach or prefer to go it alone, invest time and effort in rehearsals. Get your spouse or partner or a trusted friend to fire questions at you. Make sure those questions have some zing. How will you respond to tough or hostile questions? Do you have a clear, honest, and appropriate answer to the most negative query you can imagine?
Plan your answers with key messages and try to second-guess supplementary questions. Make sure to research your audience and their expectations beforehand. In any interview, you’re really speaking via the reporter to his or her readers, listeners, or viewers. Videotape your performance and use the results to make changes.
Shaping your message
The real difference between talking to the media and talking directly to an audience, of course, comes down to control. For a speech, you pick and choose your points and timing. But for interviews, reporters wag the dog.
That doesn’t mean you lean back and remain passive. The idea is to get out the message you want while still responding to questions and ceding control to the reporter. At the outset, it helps to personalize the experience. It is a good idea to break the ice with reporters by asking something about them — where they grew up, what their interests are, what kind of stories they have covered. Showing an interest in them makes you more likable.
Once you’ve accomplished that, here are six tips to help you master the art of getting out your preferred message.
1. Set goals for every appearance. Articulate your objective, strategy, tactics, and audience before any interview. Everything communicated should have a plan to hammer home your key messages. For interviews, keep answers — especially for TV or radio — to about 25 to 30 seconds each. When it’s appropriate, use props or visual materials to vary your pacing.
2. Nothing is 100% off the record. “Once notes are made, editors, publishers, and lawyers can review them. This goes for all appearances, not just interviews.” Whatever you say — anywhere — can follow you around endlessly and perhaps disastrously. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Then later on, be certain to get back to the reporter with an answer.
3. Watch your body language. Even in positive interview situations, interviewees sometimes look tense or stiff, which can have a big impact on credibility. Before on-camera interviews, if there is time, do some exercises or walk around to relax your body.
4. Stay on track with your message. Reporters usually can only use what you say against you. If the interview goes off track, stop it. You can ask for a break, a glass of water, a visit to the restroom. It doesn’t matter if the excuse seems lame — they will use footage of you on-camera, not off.
5. Learn how to “bridge”. This technique allows you to deflect any attempts to derail your message. “Bridging” creates a transition so that you can move from one subject to the message you want to communicate. First answer the direct question, then transition to your message. Consider using the following bridging phrases as:
• “Before we get off that topic, let me just add…”
• “Let me put that in perspective.”
• “It’s important to remember that…”
6. Prepare take-aways. Always plan the points or facts you want the reporter and, by extension, the audience to walk away thinking about. You might identify these points as the building blocks of your presentation. If someone else prepares your material, discuss the take-away points first. Narrow the focus. Then, to get listeners to remember you, deliver those points passionately and succinctly through analogies and re-creating experiences.
Finally, it’s not over when it’s over. Make sure to track the results and get reviews of your performance. Ask pals and peers how well your message went over. Be smart and brave enough to make the necessary improvements, so you do even better next time.
Kim Spirou, Spirou and Associates