In an age of sound bite communication, companies need articulate spokespeople who are prepared to deal with the unexpected and can deliver clear, concise and consistent messages to a variety of audiences. After all, how well a leader communicates, and the degree of credibility he or she maintains with important audiences, will likely affect your agency’s or your clients’ image for a long time.
Trouble is, leaders who are inexperienced in doing media interviews can easily fall into traps and say something they later regret. They can go off message, start rambling or fidgeting, freeze up when the camera light comes on or give out inaccurate information—any one of which can create a giant headache for the organization.
Having done media training for 20+ years, here are three ways I’ve found to help prepare inexperienced leaders for interviews, build their confidence and give them the tools they need to be successful:
1. Demystify the news media for them.
I think of this as a “News Media 101” overview of how the media work and the criteria they use to determine a potential story’s news value. For example, leaders need to understand that reporters are looking for high impact stories which will capture attention. They especially like a local angle for a national or regional topic, trend stories, controversy and a contrarian point of view. And they are always looking for articulate, expert commentary on current issues. It’s also important to make sure that inexperienced interviewees have a good handle on the differences they will experience in a print interview vs. a radio interview vs. a TV interview.
2. Have a goal for each interview.
Leaders need to realize that if they don’t control what they say to the news media, the media will control them. They need to have a clear idea of what they want to get across and accomplish with each interview. Stress the importance of preparation because “winging it” can lead to disaster. One of the best ways to prepare is to develop key messages—also known as talking points—to help your leader communicate effectively
Practice asking questions you think the leader could be asked, and then counsel your leader to use the questions to bridge to what he/she wants to talk about (i.e. your interview goal, using the talking points to achieve it). Leaders possess valuable expertise, and in most cases they are going to know much more about the subject matter than the person doing the interview.
3. Teach them how to take control of an interview
This usually doesn’t come naturally, even for leaders who have excellent communications skills. However, it’s vital that interviewees learn the art of taking control of interviews and dealing appropriately with difficult questions. Here are some practical tips to share to make sure your leader stays on point and doesn’t get off in the weeds:
Answer only within the scope of your authority and responsibility. If you don’t know something, say so—and then offer to get back to the interviewer later with an answer.
Look for opportunities to use transition phrases, such as “The real issue is…” or “What I can tell you about XYZ is . . .” or “What I’m here to discuss today is…” or “What’s important to know about XYZ is….”
Identify ways to turn negatives into positives. For example, in a layoff situation, stress how many jobs were saved by taking this action. It won’t put a happy face on a negative situation, but it can provide the audience with much-needed perspective.
Be aware that your body language often will speak louder than your words. Remember to smile and have energy during the interview. Don’t lose your temper no matter how provocative or loaded a question you are asked.
If you’re on camera, look at the person conducting the interview, not into the camera (unless you are specifically asked to do so).
Avoid industry jargon, and never say “no comment,” which equals guilt in most people’s minds. If you can’t discuss something, explain why (e.g. confidentiality, proprietary information, pending litigation, timing because you’re still gathering all the facts, etc.).
When you’ve made your point, stop talking. This may be the most important point of all, because more times than not people make their best points in the first sentence or two they give in response to a question. When they elaborate too much and get “off message,” they typically end up in the swamp and say something they later regret.
Media training can make the difference between a successful interview and a disastrous one.
With proper coaching, the right messaging and some practice responding to challenging questions, leaders will have the tools they need for a successful interview and the confidence to pull it off.
If the interview is a high profile one, or you have concerns that it may be hostile, or the leader seems to be having difficulty delivering key messages and you sense he/she is not ready for the interview, you may want to consider retaining a media training expert from outside the organization to help.
One final thought: Now days even a local interview in a small market, or an Internet radio interview with a tiny audience, can go viral. Social media has been a game-changer and can broadcast mistakes all over the world instantly. Small doesn’t necessarily mean safe when it comes to interviews, so the best approach is to devote the time and resources needed to make sure leaders doing interviews are prepared, confident and effective.