“Media training” is preparation for interviews with journalists, either on camera or for print. The underlying concepts of this training are not only simple, but also applicable whenever you have to answer questions that may catch you off guard, such as when giving presentations or being interviewed for a job or program.
If you interact with the media or intend to, I recommend that you go through at least one formal media training session. It’s worthwhile even if you are adroit in mind and word. But here’s a distillation of the key points that I’ve taken away from the process – they are like my class notes, for your enjoyment. I myself have gone through a condensed media training and have been interviewed and quoted by the WSJ, the NYT, and other publications (as the homepage of this site is quick to remind you).
There is No “Off the Record.”
The first step in dealing with the media is not to make any gaffes, and the first step in not making any gaffes is to remember that nothing is “off the record.” When it comes to dealing with journalists, “off the record” is a phrase that has no actual meaning. You are always “on the record.”
You must remember that every member of the media, no matter how genial, is charged with writing an interesting article. If you let something interesting slip, even if it’s off topic or not representative of the truth according to your view, you can’t expect anyone to resist the chance to use that tidbit.
Ignoring this rule is the classic way to get burned by an interview. When I was 12 or 13, I acted in a local Shakespeare production for kids. A journalist showed up one day and talked with me for a while; I knew she was going to quote me in her article. We sat on the edge of the stage and she asked questions about the production. Over the course of the conversation, I had an opportunity to reveal through my comments how engaging and intelligent I was. Later, when the paper came out, I was indeed quoted, in one line, “He must have been a fun guy.” This was the nugget of wisdom about Shakespeare that I ended up sharing with the world. I was mortified. I barely remembered having made the comment, and I thought it made me look naive, exactly contrary to my hopes.
There is no “beginning” or “end” to an interview: anything you say may be quoted – and will be, if your interviewer deems it worthy of press.
This little story leads into the overall point of media strategy. You can’t expect a reporter to adhere to your sense of what’s important or what you want to say. Anything you say, even a minor comment, could end up being featured in an article. So you have to guide and convince your reporter, if possible.
Let’s take a step back and go through Media Training 101 more methodically.
1. Don’t Make Any Mistakes
This is the extension of the “off the record” point. The first thing you have to do when interviewed is avoid screwing up. Here’s a short list of tactics:
- Assume everything you say is on the record and may be quoted. We’ve covered that.
- Pause before answering questions. The brief silence is inconsequential, helps you phrase your words accurately, and gives you an extra moment to avoid making a gaffe.
- Don’t acknowledge points that you will contradict. For example, if you’re asked a question that is critical of your position, don’t say that it’s a “good question” or a “reasonable question” or in any way grant the question legitimacy unless your overall objective is to make that statement. If you’re asked, “Did your company do something unethical?” and you start by saying, “That’s a good question…,” you may mean to say that all ethical questions are important by definition, but in this case the answer is decisively “no,” but it will be all too easy for your interviewer to quote you in a way that casts your comments in a quite different light.
- If necessary, admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. Answering a question incorrectly in an interview can be catastrophic – you can end up looking like a liar or an idiot. If you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t guess! Here are your best options. First, you can unapologetically inform the reporter that to make sure you have the facts correct on that question, you can follow up after the interview and send the information in writing. Second, if the question is somewhat connected to something you’d rather talk about, you can reframe the question (more on that below). And if you don’t want to answer the question at all…
- Decline questions when necessary. This maxim sounds obvious enough, but in the heat of an interview, you may want to whip out a snappy answer to any question posed. It’s an interviewer’s job to push you, and it’s your job to know your limits. If you shouldn’t answer a question, you want to decline in the most boring and generic way possible. One way to decline is to cite company policy. For example, to “How vulnerable were your company’s servers to the Heartbleed virus when it came out?” you might reply, “It’s our company policy not to give any specifics about security other than what is posted in our company blog.” Another way to opt out is to cite your individual place or role. You might answer the same question by saying, “It’s not my place, as Chief Marketing Officer, to comment on our company’s security practices.” You want to make such answers as boring and neutral as possible, so that interviewers will discard them.
2. Have Sound Bites Ready
It goes without saying (I think) that you’re going to want to prepare for any media interview. I’ve found that my preparation in the past has sometimes lacked sound bites. The reason is that, as an executive of your company, you’re used to talking about the product and about the brand. You know your customers, and your know your marketing points. This knowledge tends to make it easy to answer questions about your business. However, your answers may not be media-ready. To make them media-ready, you’ll want to come to the interview armed with a few sound bites: phrases that are pointed, provocative, and quotable.
Sound bites require artistry, but they begin and end with the point that you want to make. Suppose that you’re being interviewed about a new product release. It’s an imaginary hand-held technological device called the Doohickey, and you want to make the claim that it’s going to be a market leader. Some possible sound bites:
- “The Doohickey is going to be number 1 in the market.” Straightforward, but not too likely to be quoted directly in an article.
- “The Doohickey is going to make us the Apple of our industry.” Better, because it’s provocative, but it’s not too pointed, and it also involves a popular comparison, since everyone compares things to Apple.
- “You only have so much space in your pocket. The Doohickey will directly threaten the ‘pocket space’ that is currently owned by the iPhone.” Not award-winning, but this is a legitimate sound bite. It has an evocative term – “pocket space” – and it makes the provocative challenge to Apple in a more specific way. This is a comment that has a fighting chance of being directly quoted in an article. Notice that this sentence is longest, but it has the snappy term “pocket space” that sums up the idea.
There’s a broader point about the words you choose. Since anything you say might be quoted (and you can never predict what will be quoted), you must measure your words. Speak simply. Use short sentences and simple words throughout the interview. Casual language is confusing and displeasing in print.
3. Build a “Bridge” to Your Desired Point in Every Answer
Once you’re safe from screwing up, you can get to the essence of media training: building bridges. It requires practice, because this technique is easy to butcher, but it’s powerful. And once you have practiced building bridges in interviews, the way a skilled politician’s comments sound to you will forever be changed.
Here’s a crude summary of what it means to “build bridges” in an interview. Your interviewer comes into the meeting with a list of questions. You come in with a list of points that you want to make. Whenever you get asked the questions, whatever the questions are, your answer will hit home one or more of the points you want to make.
In other words, you already have all your answers in advance, even though you don’t exactly know what the questions are going to be.
For example, suppose that you have prepared the “pocket space” comment above about the Doohickey as one of your key sound bites. If you get the comment into the interview, then it may get into the article as a powerful quotation. But if you don’t get a good chance to mention it, you lose. That’s where the bridging comes in. Here are some examples:
- Suppose you’re asked about the size of the Doohickey. Maybe your interviewer is hinting that it’s too big. Now, the fact of the matter may be that the size of your device was based on comparison with competitor devices. But such an answer doesn’t get to your sound bite. So your response is, “It fits easily inside the average hipster jeans pocket…,” and from there you go into your sound bite.
- Suppose you’re asked about the price of the Doohickey. Maybe your interviewer is hinting that your device is too expensive. Once again, your non-media answer likely has nothing to do with the “pocket space” sound bite. Once again, for example, you might have priced the thing relative to competitors. But you will need to make a point, so you will build a bridge. So your response is, “These days, people are willing to pay for a device that enhances their identity. These are tools that we take everywhere with us. At our company, we have a saying, ‘You have only so much space in your pocket.'” And, once again, you’re back to your pocket sound bite.
The second example requires a more creative bridge than the first one. But you can bridge anything. Consider this example:
- If you could advertise the Doohickey on the cover of any magazine, which one would you pick? This is a bit more like a job or grad school interview question, but it represents a question you’d never have prepared for directly. But you already know your answer! “I’d choose GQ,” you say, “featuring a stylish man looking at a pocket watch – only, rather than a watch at the end of the chain, it’s a Doohickey. In our view, the Doohickey is chained to your pocket. You have only so much space in your pocket…”
With practice, you can build a bridge from almost any question to your intended answer.
4. Look for Opportunities to Take Over the Interview
Often, trying to take over an interview will make you look pushy and it will alienate your interviewer, who is really the one in charge. However, there are two situations to be aware of and alert to.
First, if your interviewer doesn’t appear to be prepared, is hesitant, or asks rather soft questions, you can offer to give an “overview” of the subject before diving into their questions. Then, you have the full stage for a minute or so to go through your key points. The advantage of this move is that you get all your key points across; you won’t face the frustrating outcome of walking away from the interview without having gotten to share all your sound bites. Personally, however, this tactic has not worked well for me in the past. In my experience, it’s harder to make your points sound natural and interesting when they are shared as a spiel. They are more much interesting when you give them organically as the answers to questions. But if an interview shows signs of floundering and you won’t be asked any good questions, this technique may be worthwhile.
On the other end, more skilled journalists may pick at you with rather specific questions that appear to omit the main points of the discussion. For example, when you’re launching the Doohickey, you may get an interviewer that doesn’t ask you much at all about the product attributes, what makes it different, how the product has been received so far, etc. Quite often, this behavior is a sign that the journalist has largely finished his or her story and is trying to understand the topic better to fill in a couple of points in the article. Your chances of being quoted or mentioned in the article are low.
People sometimes recoil at bridge-building, feeling that it amounts to hiding real answers or dodging the question. But nothing about this technique requires you to be evasive. Regardless of what you’re asked and how, you have a choice how to frame the question and where to take your answer. When you build a bridge in an response, you are exercising that right.
In many cases, the bridge process can lead to more interesting interviews (not just interviews that are effective to your goals). For example, if you’d been asked a wacky question like the magazine question above, without a bridge, you might have had no answer, a dumb answer, or a clever answer that was irrelevant. With a bridge, you have a shot at answering in a way that is unique and relevant.
One hazard is going back to the same sound bites and key points repeatedly. This behavior will make you tiresome to your interviewer. In a natural application, there will be balance. Some of your answers will be purely informative, and some will be less strategic than others, and you have allow the punchier sound bites to stand out and hopefully get picked up in the final media output.
This article is part of a new series, The Leader’s Brief. To get these articles hot off the presses and also additional commentary (this week includes analysis of Tim Cook’s interview), subscribe to the digest at www.theleadersbrief.com.