Media Interview Training: George Merlis's Six-Part Guide

By George Merlis Monday, March 19, 2012

media training guide

This guide was created by George Merlis, President of Experience Media Consulting. This is based on a keynote speech, media training workshops and his book, How to Master the Media.

Table of Contents:


Part 1: The Fundamentals

I give a keynote address for business people called “You Can Make the Media Work for You.” I begin the address by recounting how, years ago, when I was executive producer of Good Morning America, our show overtook the Today Show in the ratings and the chore of booking guests got much easier because politicians, writers, actors, singers, college professors and lawyers clamored to be interviewed. But not business people. They had to be sold on appearing.

I suspect that many executives feel they are exposed to more than enough critical scrutiny from customers, shareholders, directors and employees. Why subject themselves to media probing as well? The answer is that a well-prepared executive can – as my keynote title indicates – make the media work for him or her. An executive with an agenda can turn almost any media encounter to his or her advantage.

The key word in the last sentence is “agenda.” 

If you go into an interview without an agenda, you’ll come out of it wishing the reporter had asked you this question or that question, that he or she had covered this point or that point. A business person armed with an agenda suffers no such post-interview remorse. An agenda changes an interview from a challenge into an opportunity.

In another post I’ve discussed how to create an interview agenda and how to make it media-friendly. But for now let me cover the most basic elements of mass media communications. These rules are so fundamental that I have the temerity to call them commandments.

There are only five; my temerity has limits. I’ll list them and then explain each one.

The Five Commandments of Media Interviews:

  • Thou Shalt Be Prepared
  • Thou Shalt Know to Whom Thou Art Speaking
  • Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy
  • Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice
  • Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop an Attitude

While these rules may appear self-explanatory, it’s worth putting a little flesh and muscle on their bones.

Thou Shalt Be Prepared: You can’t get a message out if you don’t have a message to deliver; you need an agenda. How large an agenda? I recommend just four or five message points plus a URL where people can get more information. Go in with more agenda points and you’re setting yourself up for frustration because you’re unlikely to deploy all of them and, even if you do, the reporter’s not going to use all of them.

Thou Shalt Know to Whom Thou Art Speaking: You are not speaking to the reporter. You are speaking through the reporter to his or her readers, viewers or listeners. This is especially important if you are dealing with a media specialist. He may ask very sophisticated questions which you may answer at a matching level of sophistication. Back in his office, he decides he gets what you’ve said but his readers won’t, so he paraphrases you, diluting the impact of your agenda. And that brings us to our third commandment.

Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy: Reporters categorize answers in one of three ways: “Can’t use that,” “Could use that,” and “Gotta use that!” You want to get your agenda points phrased in “gotta use that language.” Reporters would much rather use your words than paraphrase you, but you need to give them the raw material – the pull quotes or soundbites. In another post, I’ll give detail how to turn message points into soundbites.

Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice: Fella comes up to me and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” I answer, “Practice, practice, practice.” 

That joke by the late Henny Youngman inspired this commandment. The most important part of my media training workshops are the practice interviews. It’s critical that you get used to deploying your agenda out loud and in answer to questions. The best way to do that is to have someone throw questions at you so it becomes second nature to reply using your agenda points. I recommend taping every practice sessions and critiquing your performance. Then do it again. And again. Practice, practice, practice.

Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop and Attitude: If you tell a reporter a lie and he learns the truth THAT becomes the story. Also, lies destroy your credibility. If you don’t know an answer, don’t get evasive. “I don’t know, I’ll find out for you,” is much better than any kind of evasive tactic. 

Speculation is dangerous because you could be wrong, the reporter can leave out the speculative nuance of your remarks and you look like you’ve made a mistake. Finally, on copping an attitude, the media loves knocking people off high horses. If you don’t get up in that saddle in the first place, they can’t do it.


Part 2: What Is News?

A key element in mastery of the media is understanding the current media scene. In this section, I’ll explore the definition of news. 

In 2002, I wrote my first book on the subject, How To Make the Most of Every Media Encounter. In it, I didn’t bother defining news, instead I relied on the general perception of what news was; in other words, the dictionary definition. By 2007, when I wrote my second media guide, How to Master the Media, news had evolved so much I decided the dictionary definition wasn’t sufficient, I had to add a practical definition of the word. Here is what I came up with:

Dictionary definition: news [nooz, nyooz] a report of recent event; intelligence; information.

Practical definition:  news [nooz, nyooz] a report that captures and holds an audience’s attention.

Today’s media environment is like Niagara Falls: unending, relentless, LOUD! News – or what passes for it – comes to us from radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, online and our phones. It is inescapable.

While producing a television documentary, a colleague went to one of the most remote places on earth: Surtsey – a barren island that is the planet’s newest land mass. Surtsey, formed by an underwater volcano off the coast of Iceland in 1963, is just an uninhabited rock in the ocean, a 40-minute helicopter ride from the nearest human habitat.  Yet, my colleague’s phone functioned there and he could access the world’s news.

More recently, in the ancient Inca city atop Machu Picchu in Peru, our guide stopped amid the ruins to make a call on his cell phone. He could have also accessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average, checked the Associated Press headlines or scrolled through the opinion pages of his favorite newspaper.

Because of the information cascade, today’s media must compete for our attention and so they are driven by five “F” words – all of them acceptable to the FCC for broadcasting.  They are: Fear, Fury, Fame, Fun and Fascination.

  • Fear – The media love stories that scare you. If you’re frightened, they’ve got your attention.

    When I moved to Los Angeles from New York in the 1980s, the local broadcast media were hysterically reporting on the implacable advance of Africanized killer bee swarms from Mexico. Here it is – a quarter century later – and the bees still haven’t arrived.
     
  • Fury – The media are biased. They are biased in favor of a good, furious argument. If the argument is based on something emotional – especially something scary – all the better because that combines fear and fury.

    Coming up in the Fury/Fear media cross hairs: construction of new nuclear power plants.  Since there is a nuclear component in current clean energy and energy independence plans, we are going to read, hear and see impassioned media debates that will invoke Three Mile Island and the far more serious Chernobyl accident of 1986.

    While the media know full well that comparing newly designed plants with the shoddily-engineered, slovenly-run Chernobyl is like comparing the Wright Flier to a Boeing 777, facts will play second fiddle to emotion in many media outlets. One of my big challenges as a media trainer is equipping clients to respond when they are on the defense against highly emotional arguments in major controversies.
     
  • Fame – The media love stories about the famous or those they can make famous. If I were to be stopped by the police for driving with an unsecured infant in my lap, it would not be a story. A celebrity does it and it’s news. Similarly, if the checkout clerk at your local supermarket went off to kidnap her romantic rival, it would not be much of a story. But if the would-be kidnapper is an astronaut, that’s a different story because the media can make her famous.
     
  • Fun – The media likes funny stories and stories they can have fun with. Hence, if the would-be astronaut/kidnapper is wearing an adult diaper so she won’t have to make pit stops on her way to meet her rival, it’s all the more compelling a news story.
     
  • Fascination – Since most stories executives want to tell are not fearsome, do not involve fury, have no famous players and are not, in and of themselves, funny, we can be thankful that the media still respond to “gee whiz,” “I didn’t know that” sorts of stories. I include in the fascination category “news you can use” stories: How to save money, how to improve your health, how to look younger, act wiser, raise brilliant children, etc.

Part 3: Crafting Your Agenda

“I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.” – President Barack Obama in a 2009 prime time news conference.

In Part 1, I outlined the five commandments of interviews. The first of those commandments was “Thou Shalt be Prepared.” 

Preparation consists of two elements: 

  1. Having an agenda for the session (i.e. knowing what you’re talking about before speaking), and
  2. Knowing what’s going on in your world so you won’t be surprised by any questions a reporter throws at you.

You can find out what’s going on in your world by using Google News or various other tools. But coming up with an agenda for an interview takes a little more work. Watching President’s Obama’s full news conference, I made a list of his agenda points – points he returned to several times, even when answering questions about other matters.

If you go into an interview or news conference without an agenda, in other words not knowing what you are talking about before you speak, you totally surrender control of the session to the reporter or reporters.

An agenda is made up of two elements: agenda points and verbal devices that make the agenda points come alive. I call those Grabbers. First, I’m going to deal only with the agenda points. I’ll tell you about Grabbers in Part 4.

Let’s look back at Obama’s news conference. I identified four primary agenda points:

  1. His proposed budget is part of the economic recovery because, he says, it involves substantial investments in energy, health care and education that will pay dividends by growing the economy.
  2. The economic problems are deep and broad and will take patience and persistence to overcome.
  3. It is important to focus on the bigger economic picture and enact regulations that will prevent future meltdowns, rather than focus on the outrage of the day (that particular day the outrage was AIG retention bonuses).
  4. Mexican drug cartel violence is a threat in the United States and his administration was concerned and would take appropriate action. (This last agenda point diverted from his economic message, but I am certain it was an agenda point because the president specifically called on the Univision correspondent, knowing that his most likely question would concern the Mexican drug wars.)

Despite the impact of a president’s actions, for the vast majority of business executives, interview agenda points don’t create waves that could float or swamp all boats. Therefore, when we non-presidential interview subjects create an agenda, we have to tune in to radio station WSIC. That stands for Why Should I Care.

Somewhere in building our agenda, we have to answer that question – why should the reader/viewer/listener care? What’s in it for him? How can he benefit by using your information or be harmed by ignoring it?

Once you’ve built that agenda of four or five points, you need to make it come alive, to make it quoteworthy. To do that, we use Grabbers (see below). Here are a couple of examples of grabbers from President Obama’s news conference. Although they may have looked spontaneous, I am willing to bet the farm that they were prepared and rehearsed beforehand:

Agenda Point: his budget is part of the recovery plan: “The alternative [to this budget] is to stand pat and to simply say we are just going to not invest in health care, we're not going to take on energy... we will not improve our schools, and we'll allow China or India or other countries to lap our young people in terms of their performance; we will settle on lower growth rates; and we will continue to contract, both as an economy and our ability to provide a better life for our kids. That I don't think is the better option.”

Agenda Point: It will take patience and persistence to resolve the economic downturn: “It took many years and many failures to lead us here, and it will take many months and many different solutions to lead us out. There are no quick fixes, and there are no silver bullets.”  And,  “This is a big ocean liner – it's not a speedboat – it doesn't turn around immediately.”


Part 4: How to Craft Grabbers

Above, I suggested that the best approach was to go into one of these sessions with a limited agenda of four, perhaps five major message points. Here, let’s focus on making those points quoteworthy.

As a print reporter and, later, a television news producer, I categorized answers into one of three categories:

  • Can’t use that.
  • Could use that.
  • Gotta use that.

Your mandate is to express your message points in “gotta use that” language – language that makes the reporter think, “I couldn’t say that better myself.” To that end, it’s important to liven up your message points with Grabbers.

A Grabber is a word device that turns a “can’t use that” or “could use that” response into a “gotta use that” answer.

There are five basic categories of Grabbers:

  • Word pictures
  • Startling facts or statistics or “st” words
  • Famous quotations or paraphrases of famous quotations
  • Analogies (either metaphors or similes)
  • Comparisons

Let’s look at examples of each:

Word pictures

A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service on the condition of Bernard Madoff’s government-seized $2.2 million yacht: “This boat was extremely well kept, extremely clean. It looked like somebody took a bottle of 409 and scrubbed it every day.” Another example: North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue on South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s refusal to take federal stimulus funds: “As bad a driver as I am, I’ll drive a truck down there to pick up his share. I know how to put those dollars to good use.”

Startling statistics or -st words

Dr. Alan Stern, then the principal investigator of the New Horizons NASA mission to Pluto: “New Horizons is the first mission to the last planet.” 

Using a “st” word – first, last, biggest, smallest, best, worst – tells the media that what you are saying is news. In our media training session, Dr. Stern got two “st” words into a single sentence, and he used that grabber to great effect – it appeared in dozens of news stories. A few months later, astronomers meeting in the Czech Republic made news by declaring Pluto was not really a planet. So, I sent Dr. Stern an e-mail asking him what he was saying now. He wrote back, “I have not yet begun to fight.” He was quoting John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy who, invited to surrender his burning ship by his British opponent, issued that defiant reply. (And went on to sink the British vessel.) 

And that brings us to our third form of grabber:

Quotations or paraphrases

Dr. Stern’s example was a direct quote. But you see lots of paraphrases of quotations as Grabbers. Sadam Hussein’s vainglorious boast that the first Gulf War would be the “mother of all battles,” spawned hundred of “mother of all....” examples: “Mother of all baseball games;” “Mother of all legislative fights;”  “Mother of all boxing matches;” etc. 

John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not....” line from his inaugural address is easily paraphrased to meet any number of situations. Years ago I read this one from Professor Paul Lucey of the University of Hawaii about the proposal to return astronauts to the moon: “Ask not what astrobiology can do for the moon. Ask rather what the moon can do for astrobiology.” 

Another great quote I’ve seen used directly in many situations is Einstein’s quip: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Analogies (metaphors or similes)

The difference between metaphors and similes is the use of the word “like.”

“Miller, the champagne of bottled beer” is the grievously inaccurate metaphor. “As bottle beers go, Miller is like champagne,” is the simile for the same delusion. 

In one interview, a Japanese geisha used this simile about foreign tourists who harass her with cameras on Kyoto’s streets: “We are not like a Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.” And Stephen M. Davis of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance at Yale got off a good metaphor about a new effort some firms are making to tie executive compensation to corporate performance: “These are green shoots, to use a gardening analogy. It remains to be seen whether these are annuals or perennials.” 

Not all analogies work. Brazil’s earthy president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva unleashed this particularly egregious example in an interview about trade talks: “We are moving forward with real seriousness towards finding the possibility, like the G Spot, of an agreement.”

Comparisons

In Part 5, I cited a noteworthy one from President Obama’s March 24 prime time news conference.  Urging patience in the economic crisis, he said of the U.S. economy: “This is a big ocean liner – it’s not a speedboat – it doesn’t turn around immediately.” That was a particular good Grabber because it was both a comparison (speedboat versus ocean liner) and a word picture. I suspect, like most good grabbers, it was crafted well in advance of the Q&A session, an arrow placed in the interview quiver that could be fired when the right question came along. (Word picture alert!)

What if the right question doesn’t come along?  How do you deploy your agenda if reporters don’t ask you the “right” questions?   Next, let’s deal with the art of transitioning from off-base or even hostile questions to your message points. How, in other words, to put the interview train on the track to your destination. (Another word picture alert!)


Part 5: The Fundamentals: Bridging and Flagging

The previous two parts of this guide dealt with your interview agenda: how to create one and how to make it compelling to the journalist. First you have your ideas – the message points – and then you craft Grabbers that turn the ideas into soundbites or pull quotes.

But how do you get to that agenda point and your brilliant Grabber if the reporter doesn’t ask you the right questions, questions that provide easy paths to your agenda?  You use a four-step process called bridging.

Here are the steps:

  • Acknowledge the question with a short-form answer.
  • Build a bridge.
  • Deploy your message, illustrated with a grabber.
  • Shut up.  Don’t go back and revisit the original question.

Let’s go over those steps, using a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you are the president of the United States and you are sitting down with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.”  You’ve come into the interview with four agenda points. One of them is: The recession is no excuse for postponing action on global climate change; quite the contrary, confronting the issue head-on will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and supply 150,000 new jobs. 

A grabber for this might be: “There is a silver lining to the carbon dioxide cloud.”

(Note: I made up a number for the jobs to illustrate a point: a specific, accurate number will be more effective than saying “many” or “a lot of” new jobs. To some readers and listeners, “many” might be 15,000, to others, it might be a million. When dealing with the media, using the specific is always preferable to using a general term.)

Now back to your “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. President. Steve Kroft doesn’t do you the favor of asking about climate change. Instead he asks questions about other matters. You, as president, have gone through extensive media training and know how to use one of Kroft’s other questions to get the interview on track to your agenda. So you bridge after he says: “Mr. President, there seems to be growing populist resentment against the automobile company bailouts.”

Okay, Mr. President, you have to get from car companies to global warming. Here’s how you do it:

Step One, Acknowledge: “Yes, Steve, there is. And it’s understandable. People see these rescue plans as rewarding bad behavior: following the poor business model of incurring a lot of debt and building fuel-inefficient and polluting cars and SUVs.”

Step Two, Bridge: “But when the car companies emerge from this, they are going to be leaner, more efficient and their cars will become part of the solution, not part of the problem. The new cars they build will pollute less, contribute less to global climate change.”

Step Three, Message Point and Grabber: “This is another example of an opportunity wrapped in a challenge and why we should not – indeed – must not delay tackling climate change. The silver lining to the carbon dioxide cloud is that overcoming the problem now will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and create 150,000 new jobs.”

Step Four, Shut Up: You stop there. You don’t go back and revisit the car companies. To do so invites a follow-up on automobiles. To stop at “150,000 new jobs,” invites a follow-up on global climate change or on those jobs. In fact, if I were Kroft, my follow up would be: “Can you undertake something so challenging in time of recession?” Which, of course, plays right into your presidential agenda.

Flagging is another get-the-interview-back-on-track tactic. Let’s say you’ve acknowledged, bridged and gotten lost. Or let’s say you find yourself giving an excruciatingly long and meandering answer. The solution is to raise a flag. 

What’s a flag? It’s an expression like, “The real point is....” or “The most important thing to take away from this is...” or even, “The bottom line here is...” 

What you are saying, in effect, is, “Ignore everything I’ve said up to now, here comes the good stuff.” A flag MUST be followed by the good stuff, not more meandering. If you meander after you’ve flagged, you’ve tossed away your life vest and you are completely adrift.

Flagging is an inelegant ladder and should be used only if you’ve dug yourself into a deep hole. But it’s a lot more elegant that blathering on endlessly or dribbling off hesitatingly into an inconclusive silence.


Part 6: The Fundamentals: The Good Answer Radio Stations

Politicians often say there are no bad questions, only bad answers. In other words, someone who is on his or her game can use any question to lead to their chosen answer; to take control of the interview situation.

Above, I explained how to bridge from a reporter’s agenda to your own agenda. Once you’ve bridged, you need to make your answers effective. In fact, even if you are asked a question that invites one of your agenda points and requires no bridging, you need to make your answers compelling. In this part, I’ll deal with three steps toward giving effective answers.

First, it’s important you understand that an interview is not a conversation. When you are doing a TV interview, that’s obvious: there’s a bright light shining in your face, a microphone on your lapel and several technicians standing behind the interviewer. The situation is so artificial there’s no mistaking it for a conversation, no matter how chatty the reporter gets. But when a reporter calls on the phone or sits down across the desk from us or buys us lunch (that’ll be the day!), you can sometimes be lulled into a false sense of informality. 

Don’t be gulled. The reporter is working, not chatting, no matter how informal she gets. You, too, need to be working. And that leads me to my first point: you need to adopt some counter-intuitive behavior in answering a reporter’s questions.  As a mnemonic device, I have come up with three west-of-the-Mississippi radio stations to help remember some key counter-intuitive rules of interviews. They are: KPUF, KISS, and KOTJ.

KPUF -- Key Point Up Front. 

In conversations, we build to a conclusion. In an interview, we start with our conclusion and then bring up the supporting data. Think about it this way: we need to communicate with the media the way the media communicates with us.

A news story begins with a headline, then comes the lead paragraph with the most important information and then the supporting data. Leading off with your key point is especially important if you are doing a live broadcast interview. Audience attention is keenest when you first begin speaking and then flags as you go on. So grab ‘em at the start with your conclusion.

KISS -- Keep it Short and Simple.

How short? I advocate the 30/10/3 rules. 

For instance, if you asked me in an interview, “What constitutes an ideal answer in an interview?” I would answer, “The ideal answer is no more than 30 words long, spoken in no more than 10 seconds and formulated in no more than three sentences.” 

That answer is 25 words long, formulated in two sentences and, if spoken, would take me about seven seconds. (The 10-second part is slightly gratuitous. Unless you are President of the Slow Talkers of America you will likely speak most thirty-word answers in about 8 or 9 seconds.)

Okay, that takes care of how short, but how simple should that answer be? You should speak at the average grade level of your targeted audience. 

In this country the average grade level is somewhere between the tenth and eleventh grades. So round it down and realize that for general audience media you are speaking to a 16-year-old. If you are being interviewed by Fortune or the Wall Street Journal, you can ratchet up the sophistication level of your answers. 

How do you know what grade level your answers are?  Well, if you write them out in MS Word, there is a tool that enables you to check them against something called the Flesch-Kincaid Scale. Go to the “Tools” section of Word, select “Options,” select the “Spelling & Grammar” tab and select “Show Readability Statistics.”  Now run “Spelling & Grammar” from the Tools menu and at the end of the spell and grammar check you’ll get see a box that includes the grade level of your document.

KOTJ -- Knock off the Jargon.

I don’t know of any business or discipline that doesn’t have its own jargon. There is so much jargon out there that you can have cases of dueling acronyms. 

Some years ago during a training session for NASA scientists working on the Mars rovers, the acronym EDL came up.  EDL, I thought, that’s an edit decision list. (In television, it’s the list of time codes selected to edit together to make a story.) Why would you need an edit decision list to go to Mars?

Well, it turns out in NASA-speak EDL is the Entry, Descent and Landing sequence (and obviously a far more daunting bit of business than an edit decision list, since a television EDL can be corrected while a plunging spacecraft’s EDL cannot be.) 

If you use jargon you are inviting a print reporter to paraphrase you, you are inviting a broadcast reporter to omit your soundbite and, should the jargon make it past those filters, you are inviting your end user to tune out what you are saying while she searches for the translation of your opaque wording. If, in an interview, you find an acronym or other bit of jargon does pop out of your mouth, just define it and then continue with your answer.

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