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.
One of the keys to having your company's messages heard and retained by your target audience is repetition. During an interview, it is to your advantage to emphasize your company's messages several times using different kinds of support to give the messages variety and make the story interesting.
The questions you are asked will not always lead directly to your prepared messages or key points. Using some simple techniques, you will be able to deal with the question and direct the focus of the answer to successfully communicate your messages; you will also be able to influence the types of follow-up questions that are used during the interview.
- Bridging helps you move from one aspect of an issue to another. It involves dealing with the question briefly and honestly, and then promptly following that response with your message, for example: "Yes that is correct, but you should also know that..." or "That's the way it used to be, but today we are...." or "I don't know... but what I can tell you is..."
- Flagging helps your audience remember your message by emphasizing or prioritizing what you consider to be the most important key points, for example: "We are very excited about this because..." or "I've talked about a lot of things today. I think it boils does to these three things..."
- Using anecdotes to illustrate your key points enable your audience to relate to and comprehend your message.
- Use facts—simply expressed statements describing the way things are.
- Statistics should be used sparingly and are most effective when they can be put into easy to understand terms. For example, saying "one out of three" paints a more memorable image than "33 percent."
- Quoting an expert adds credibility to any statement, especially if the expert is a disinterested third party.
- Making an analogy or comparison between two things makes your statements more memorable.
As a competent, well-prepared media spokesperson, you will earn the respect of the reporters while positioning yourself as a thought leader and elevating your company's position in the marketplace.
Whether for a series of press interviews or speaker placements at key conferences, it is essential to be prepared, stay on message, and preserve your agenda.