Very few of us are born with the natural talents to speak in soundbites. Keeping answers short and concise is very difficult and often nerve-wracking when a journalist is firing away with questions or a TV camera is pointing straight at you.
Media interview techniques can be learned, however, and natural skills can always be fine-tuned. A professional media trainer can take you from being a good spokesperson to being a great one. You can become someone who easily engages an audience—whether a reporter from a national newspaper or 3,000 people at a major industry conference.
Three classic examples of soundbites:
- "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Ronald Reagan's call to the Soviet President to deconstruct the Berlin Wall in face of mounting social pressure.
- "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Words that instantly immortalized landing on the moon and symbolized success for the Apollo program.
- "Read my lips: no new taxes." A pledge that became a key tenet of George H. W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.
The Role of a Media Spokesperson
As a media spokesperson, you are the face and voice of your company, delivering key messages and demonstrating expertise in your industry. You are required to think and act somewhat differently from the way you usually communicate with your colleagues, customers, partners, or investors:
- Normally, in a conversation or presentation, you start with premises or facts and build to conclusions.
In talking with reporters, you must start with conclusions, known as key points, use facts only as illustrations, and repeat your messages.
- Normally, you assume that the person you are speaking to hears the entire discussion and receives both the context as well as the key points of the discussion.
In almost all media interviews, everything you say is edited before it is read, seen, or heard by the audience you ultimately want to reach.
- Normally, your views may be your own as well as those of your organization.
In talking to the media, however, you are solely the representative of your organization.
Know Your Audience and Always Deliver Your Message
The real audience isn't the reporter, it's the readers, listeners, or viewers of the media outlet you are speaking to, so you must always address your audience through the journalist interviewing you. Here are some important things to remember that will help you achieve the best results from your media interviews:
- No matter how sophisticated the audience, assume an attention span sufficient for a maximum of three "ideas."
- Know in advance the two or three ideas, or key points, you want to communicate in any interview.
- In answering any questions, state your key point, and emphasize it with your voice and gestures.
- Not all reporters are experts in the topics they cover. In most cases, they don't know or want to know your jargon, so speak in plain English and avoid using acronyms or technical terms specific to your industry.
- As you conduct each interview, it is important not to talk yourself "into jail." When you've made your key point and added a fact or proof point to illustrate it, stop talking.
- Do not use "off the record." Never say anything to a reporter that you wouldn't be comfortable seeing in print, hearing on the radio, or seeing on TV. Everything is on the record!
- Never lie or knowingly mislead a reporter.
- Never comment on matters beyond your responsibility. For example, if you are not the CEO or CFO, don't comment on your company's earnings. Never speak on behalf of your customers or competitors.
- Never stonewall a reporter. Saying "no comment" is very similar to "I plead the Fifth Amendment." Instead, give the reasons: "I don't know" or "I'm not the right person to provide that kind of information."
- Always keep cool, professional, and in command of the interview, even in the face of hostile questions.
Vivian Kelly is the founder and CEO of Interprose Public Relations (www.interprosepr.com).