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February 3, 2018

Do you have any questions for my answers?  -- Henry Kissinger

When conducting a media training, I start off with a segment from the 70’s Bob Newhart Show. As he waits to be interviewed on a local TV show about being a psychologist, Bob is chatted and buttered up by the host, who signals she’ll be lobbing softball questions his way. But the second the show goes on air, she attacks him as a “snake-oil salesman flim-flamming innocent people” who charges too much and doesn’t guarantee his patients a cure. Bob is caught totally off-guard and painfully (but hilariously) stumbles his way through the interview, digging his grave deeper and deeper.

This comic version of a media interview illustrates a few essentials: 1. Good preparation for any interview is key, and 2. Don’t let the interviewer control the interview—your job is to get across your key points, regardless of what they ask.

Whether you’re asked to respond to the latest crisis or explain the long-term direction of your field or organization, you need to be well-prepared and have a game plan for what you want to say—and avoid saying—in every interview.

Media training usually involves a session led by an outside expert with the assistance of in-house communications staff. You refine and practice key messages, learn tips for handling a variety of media, and role play interview scenarios. Although there is no substitute for an actual training, here are some tips and best practices:

Begin with the end in mind

When you decide to do an interview, think not only about what you know about the issue, reporter and publication, but also your target audiences. Then ask yourself:

  • What is my game plan for the interview?
  • How will I define success?
  • How can I prepare myself for the ideal as well as the most dreaded questions?
  • How can I control the interview?

Anticipating the reporter’s questions and preparing brief, sharp responses will help you control the interview. But your most important goal is to manage your own message—regardless of what questions you end up being asked. Jot down 2-3 concise core messages you want to communicate on note paper or index cards. Add some quotable quotes, compelling stories, or a few examples and facts to illustrate. Then practice your delivery with family, friends, trusted colleagues, or in front of a mirror.

Conducting an effective interview

Media trainees learn two tried-and-true strategies for every interview. The first is called “headlining”: Make your most important points at the get-go, and come back to them whenever you can. The second is “bridging”: Move from the reporter’s agenda to your messages; to use a sports analogy, play offense, not defense. For example, when you’re asked about problems, talk about solutions. This doesn’t mean you’re blatantly ignoring the question—address the topic, but bridge quickly to what you want to say.

As you move from print to TV or radio, how you say it is as important as what you say. Research has shown that only 7% of what we take in is communicated through speech, while 38% is conveyed through vocal quality and tone, and a whopping 55 % through facial expressions, gestures, and movements.

 When the going gets tough

Finally, remember these key takeaways when you get caught in a contentious interview:

  • Keep it positive—Reject negative assumptions, reframe a negative question, assert the alternative
  • Don’t drag it out—Make your point and move on
  • Remember, their questions don’t matter…Your answers do!

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