20 Things to Make You a Better Media Spokesperson
It's been almost 30 years since Stephen Covey wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It's gone on to become one of the most successful non-fiction books of all time, selling over 25 million copies worldwide.
The book's title likely has led to so many of the catchy headlines we see on the internet today, from the 5 Things You Need to Know to Prevent a Heart Attack, to 10 Ways to Live Longer, to 6 Ways to Have a Better Sex Life. Not that I know what any of the six ways to have a better sex life are because I just made those headlines up, it's safe to say that listing a number in front of anything is an effective way to get attention.
With that marketing in mind, here are the 20 things to make you a better media spokesperson.
Too many people worry that reporters are out to get them, make them look bad, or take their comments out of context. Despite what Donald Trump says about the media, none of that is true. Spend time preparing for the interview and stop worrying about the outcome. It does no good to go into any media interview thinking it will turn out poorly.
Learn Everything You Can About the Issue
Spend as much time as you can learning about the issue you’ll be interviewed on for two reasons. The most obvious is, if you’re asked a question by a reporter chances are you’ll have the answer. In addition, if you know what you’re going to stay before you say it, chances are you’ll say it better.
Figure Out What You'll Be Asked
What questions do you think you’ll get? It’s vitally important to spend some time thinking about what you’re going to be asked, so write a list of questions you expect, starting with the most obvious and expanding from there. Here’s a quick tip – reporters often start with an open ended question like “What are your thoughts on this?, or “What’s your reaction”?
Figure Out What You'll Say
Now that you know the issue and have a list of the questions you’ll be asked, it’s time to figure out what you’ll say in response. Go back to your list and write answers to each question, or at least some notes for you to follow. Don’t worry about memorizing answers. That’s not what this is about.
Find a co-worker or anyone you’re comfortable with and ask him/her to play reporter. Have them ask the questions on your list and then give your responses as if it was the actual interview. Use your phone or a tablet to videotape the interview, play it back and check your eye contact and use of hands. More on that in a minute.
Start Friendly and Confident
Greet the reporter with warmth and confidence. Set the stage early for a successful interview. The reporter will be checking you out as much as you’re trying to figure out what approach the reporter is going to take. The same applies if you’re doing a phone interview. Be confident.
There’s no need to rush into an answer, or while you give your answer. You have much more presence if you slow down and make sure all your words are being properly pronounced, especially if you’re a person who normally speaks quickly.
Use Sound Bites
Don’t forget that 99% of the interview won’t be used. The reporter is only looking for one, two or maybe three sound bites they can use from the interview. So be prepared to say a couple of things that are short, colourful and capture your message well. When Justin Trudeau said “Because it’s 2015”, it was a great use of a sound bite to communicate his message about gender balance in his cabinet.
Skilled spokespeople use what are known as bridges to get from a reporter’s difficult question to their key message. A bridge acknowledges the question but allows you to talk about what you want to talk about. A couple of great bridges are “What we’re focusing on is” and “Some people may look at it that way, but here’s what we do know”. These are both great ways to lead into your key message.
You Need to Answer the Question
Bridges, or any other tactic won’t allow you to get around answering a direct question. There’s a fine line between using a bridge and talking about something else that’s important and refusing the answer the question. I would never suggest refusing to answer a question because it makes you look like you’re trying to avoid the topic.
Eye Contact is Critically Important
During one-on-one interviews, or when you’re in a media scrum it’s very important to look at the reporter as you give your answer. Even if it’s a television interview and the clip used doesn’t show the reporter, the viewer is left with the impression you’re speaking directly to the reporter and any time you can look somebody in the eye and say something it adds to your credibility.
Use Your Hands
Keep your hands at your sides and use them to keep communicate your messages. You’ll find that the more you use your hands, the more you’ll be able to relax your voice. Whatever you do, don’t clasp your hands in front of you at your waist because it closes your body from the viewer if the camera operator uses a longer shot.
Stay on Message
People get in trouble when they say too much to reporters. There’s no need to. Don’t go off on a tangent to show how knowledgeable you are. It will just take you into areas that a good reporter will be happy to ask you a lot more about, taking you away from your key messages.
Keep Your Cool
Some interviews can be stressful and reporters have the right to ask difficult questions in certain situations. Keep your cool, take the high road and answer the questions to the best of your ability. Saying to the reporter “That’s a stupid question” gets you nowhere.
Smile and Have Energy
There are few things that will get reporters coming back for more interviews than if you have passion. Try to have a smile on your face as you speak and have energy. For some stories this obviously doesn’t work, but it will for most of them.
You can’t always be positive, but there’s nothing that leads to controversy quicker than somebody who’s overly negative. Being positive makes you look like the “adult in the room” and despite the way politics have changed in the last year or so, people still like to watch positive people.
Answer With a Statement
This gets a little difficult to explain, but rather than providing direct responses to the reporter, try to answer the reporter’s questions with a statement. If a reporter asks you why a 5% tax increase is necessary don’t start with the words “Well because” and then give the rest of your response. Begin by saying “Taxpayers have told us keeping service levels high is important”. This makes you sound stronger and controls the conversation.
Don't Speculate or Talk Off the Record
Reporters like to get people to use their knowledge to make educated guesses about what may happen. That’s not your job as a spokesperson, so don’t take the bait. If a reporter ever asks you to comment off-the-record simply respond by saying that all your answers are on the record.
Review and Critique Your Performance
Look, read or listen to the final product on television, in the newspaper, or on radio. See how you did and how the reporter handled the story. It’s gives you information on how to do the next interview better.
Keep in Touch
If the interview was a positive experience, send the reporter a handwritten note to say thanks and offer to do another interview if the subject comes up again. There are reasons many of the same people keep getting interviewed and it’s normally because they’re knowledgeable, speak well and are easy to deal with.
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