Did your spokesperson’s last big interview opportunity result in an article peppered with company key messages, securing it a coveted spot on your office’s wall of fame? Or did the messages fall flat during the back and forth exchange, resulting in coverage that left you slapping your forehead saying, “Why did they quote her on that?” Or, worse, “Why weren’t we included in the story?”
Preparing your spokesperson to ace an interview goes beyond the textbook “Interview Prep 101” where you develop a key message document that’s three pages too long, draft answers to every question you think the reporter will ask and hope some of the messages will make their way into the actual interview. Communicating your messages effectively in a fast-paced interview with a reporter requires simple, easy to remember themes that resonate with the reporter’s audience and a proven game plan for incorporating those messages effortlessly into any interview.
Effective Key Messages
The heart of your preparation for any interview is the development of key messages— the most important points you want the audience to glean from the interview. Never have more than three. Why? That’s all your audiences or you can remember. The more messages thrown at the reporter, the more they blend in with everything else you’re saying, obscuring what’s truly important. So, if you have eight or nine messages, perform message triage. Get them down to everything you have to say, not everything you want to say.
When crafting your key messages for the media, keep in mind what will appeal to your audience. They want to know, “What’s in it for me? And why should I care?” The acid test for a good key message, aside from its truth, is whether it addresses the concerns of the audience, not just the speaker’s aspirations or self-definition. A good key message blends the two, which keeps it relevant and real.
• Add supporting statements for an ideal answer: We advise clients to keep messages extraordinarily simple and short. They’re concepts, not scripts and not intended to be repeated verbatim. What’s your version of “better, faster or cheaper?” The most important aspect is that the speaker remembers the messages and delivers them in a way that will be remembered and believed.
The point is not to write a catchy line or embed the message with specific content so it stands alone. It’s to fashion a basic statement of direction—in other words, a sound bite—that helps the speaker unlock the factual proof points and anecdotes that make each message credible and memorable. Why are you better or faster? Best in class? Most promising? Prove it.
• Show me, don’t tell me: This basic principle underlying all great expository writing holds true for media interviews as well. Reporters are naturally skeptical and will stress test everything you say. Make it a habit of supporting each message with a proof point—third party validation, statistical evidence or impressive fact—to make your message credible. Round it out with the two words a reporter loves—“for example.” Then plug in an anecdote or vivid description that will help your audience visualize your point and —not incidentally—remember it. All this can be readily gotten across in less than 30 seconds if you think through the structure of a good answer beforehand.
• Weave key messages into interviews effortlessly without sounding rehearsed: Rarely will your key message fit perfectly as a response to a reporter’s question. You can also bet that no reporter is going to ask, “What are your key messages?” So instead of dodging questions, always try to answer the question or explain why you can’t. Then look for a way to logically connect or “bridge” from the answer to one of your messages. Sometimes it can’t be done, of course, but the point is that your answers are your only vehicle, so look for ways to make the most of them. Reporters, after all, don’t know what they don’t know. And they won’t find out either, unless you tell them.
Examples of bridging statements that can lead into the points you want to make might include:
• “…an important thing to keep in mind is…”
• “…the key point here is …”
• “…that’s why we say that …”
• “…what I CAN tell you is …”
An important point: The speaker should not think his or her goal is to slavishly stay “on message.” That’s a sure-fire way to kill rapport with a reporter or a TV audience. To reiterate: Interviewees should try to answer the questions in the best way they can—and look for ways to weave in their messages when they can naturally. But don’t force it.
Good interviews don’t just happen. Making it look simple takes a lot of preparation and hard work. If your spokesperson follows the strategies outlined above, it won’t be long before he or she will be teased around the office for being a true media maven, which is a sure sign of success in the interviewing game.
This article is excerpted from PR News' Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article was written by Walt Parker, senior vice president of media training and Liz Mikly, vice president of media relations & training, Weber Shandwick. To order this guidebook or find out more information about it, go to www.prnewsonline.com/store.