How to Get a Big Head Start on Media Interviews
In life we take shortcuts. We know it's not always the best thing to do, but we usually rationalize it by telling ourselves we don't need to do as much work as we should because we now have more experience, or we're smarter or perhaps we have better things to do with our time.
When it comes to preparing for media interviews, too many people take a shortcut and don't take the time needed to develop a list if questions they can expect from a reporter. That list can make a huge difference.
You need to think like a journalist and ask yourself what questions the reporter will ask. If you can anticipate most of the questions, the chances of doing a great interview go up dramatically.
Here's the Problem
When I do media training for clients, I walk them through a process that works.
It starts with trying to determine questions they’re going to get from the media about a particular topic. I get them to write a list of questions they think they’ll get from the media. They can then use the messaging they’ve prepared to answer the questions.
Most organizations do it the other way around. They prepare a news release, with some information and a quote or two and develop a separate key message document. They have their spokespeople get familiar with all the information in the news release and use the key messages to help them know what they should say.
That’s all good, but it’s missing the first step to set things up properly. The question from the reporter starts the discussion, so use that order in your preparation. You have to anticipate the question you’re going to get before you can use your key messages.
I use this example to explain why anticipating the question is so important when I do media training. If I came home at 3:30 in the morning, I’m pretty sure my wife would ask me 1) Where I was and 2) why I didn’t let her know what I was doing or when I would be home. Knowing the two questions I would get allows me to formulate my answers much better.
Just for the record, I’ve never come home at 3:30 in the morning from anything.
Can You Send Me Your Questions?
I’m often asked if there’s a shortcut. Can I ask the reporter for a list of questions? In most cases the answer is no. Reporters don’t have enough time to prepare many questions in advance. Generally speaking, they know the questions they plan to ask, but they rarely have the time to write a list of questions, so they normally don’t have a list to share in advance. They also don’t want to. They expect to receive a more honest answer and likely something more usable on air, if you don’t get the questions in advance.
In some cases, reporters will provide a list of questions, but it doesn’t happen often. Of course this doesn’t count instances when you’ll receive questions from the reporter by email and you can provide a written response.
How to Knock the First Question Out of the Park
Here are some general rules to follow when you’re trying to determine what you’ll be asked. Reporters like to start with a very open ended question to get the subject talking. They want to make them feel comfortable and understand many people they interview are not polished media spokespeople. They’re association leaders, volunteers and even corporate executives who haven’t done many media interviews. Getting them to share their thoughts properly is half the battle, so look for an opening question that’s a softball such as “What’s your reaction to the announcement”? or, “How will this affect your group”?
A question like this allows you to immediately get into your #1 key message because your overall reaction to any decision or announcement needs to link to your most important statement. This is where developing a list of questions pays off because the first question on your list should be something similar to “What’s your reaction”? or “What do you think”? If you can anticipate that’s the question you’re going to get, it’s becomes much easier to give your answer, which includes your top key message.
It really becomes what I like to call Match Game – match the questions you expect to get from the reporter to the answers you plan on giving.
Be careful though because the questions may not come in the order you expect. In some cases you may not get a softball question off the top because the reporter wants to take a more aggressive approach. You may get a question along the lines of “Your news release says consumers are going to have to pay more because of the government announcement, but aren’t you really concerned your industry will lose business”? That may very well be a fair question, so be prepared with your answer, regardless of when you get the question.
Be Ready to Answer With a Sound Bite
Keep in mind, the reporter is only looking for one or two sound bites. Most of what you say in the interview will never be used. When you develop your key messages, make sure you have one or two really solid sound bites – something short, conversational and memorable. I did a separate blog on sound bites this spring.
When you deliver a sound bite try to make it stand out, which means it should be one short sentence, or if it isn’t, try to pause when you’re finished saying the words. This makes it easier for the media outlet to pull that clip from the recorded interview and your inflection will make it stand out more. I’ve heard some great sound bites get lost because the person being interviewed immediately raced into the next portion of what they wanted to say. Good sound bites are allowed to breathe a little.
I Have One Final Question
Some reporters will ask a final question at the end of the interview along the lines of “Is there anything we haven’t covered, or is there anything else you would like to say”? This is a great opportunity to restate your key message in a conversational way, or drop that sound bite again. Take the opportunity the reporter is giving you and if you deliver the message properly you’ll find this will be the clip that makes it’s way onto the six o’clock news. It may only be four seconds long and come at the end of a five-minute interview, but sometimes that’s the way it works.
Proper preparation is the key to any successful media interview, so spend a few minutes making a list of the questions you expect to get. With some practice you likely can anticipate about 90% of the questions. There will always be a question or two that you may not expect, but focus on the questions you think you’ll get and you’ll take better control of your next media interview.