Take stress out of talking to the media

Talking to the media isn’t as difficult as some people would have you believe. Even as I write that I can hear the contrary point of view… reporters are out to trip you up, they misquote you, they take you out of context. But I believe the interviewee who is well-prepared has nothing to worry about. Let me explain.

Talking to the media (without stress) comes down to four things:

  1. Understanding your strategic or business reason for doing the interview
  2. Defining your message and then refining it into a form that works as a soundbite
  3. Anticipating the challenging questions
  4. Feeling comfortable bridging from unhelpful questions to your key message

Your objective

Your strategic reason for doing the interview is to deliver your message. Reporters are not your friends when it comes to getting your message to a wider population. They don’t see their job as giving you a platform. They want a strong soundbite that will help them tell a story that will be better than the corresponding story on a rival channel. You are not in the business of promoting their newscast. You job is to promote your message.

Working with soundbites

Just because you are an expert on a topic doesn’t automatically mean you can deliver your expertise in a powerful soundbite. When you are talking to the media you must prepare by focussing your thoughts.

Soundbites are rarely longer than 8 seconds. That’s about 24 words. And you will usually get only one soundbite in a news report. Although you will have been interviewed for four or five minutes, your ‘clip’ on the supper hour newscast will be no more than 8 seconds.

Understand that, and prepare for it. If you don’t you may give answers that ramble on for 30 or 40 or 90 seconds. And when you do that you give the reporter permission to start editing in search of the 8 second clip. That’s when people complain about being misquoted. If you get into the habit of giving short answers, you reduce the danger of being taken out of context.

Anticipating the questions

Your preparations for talking to the media should involve anticipating challenging questions. Dealing with these is where you earn your money. Veteran Canadian reporter Linden MacIntyre described journalism as ‘skeptical inquiry.’ So think yourself into the mindset of the most skeptical person you know. What would that person ask you? What would the most difficult person in your office challenge you with? What would your sternest critic say?

Write out the tough questions. Then figure out how to use them as springboards to your message.

Bridging to your message

Your job is not to answer every question the reporter asks. By all means answer those questions that easily get you to your message. But if the questions are ill-informed, or off-topic, or provocative, you should not engage with them. If you do you are working on the reporter’s agenda, not your agenda.

With practice, or media coaching, you can become comfortable bridging away from unhelpful questions and getting back to your key message or a supporting message.