Media Training Basics

By George Merlis Thursday, May 28, 2009

A primary goal of any media interview is to inject your agenda into the news story.  The best way to do that is to express yourself in “gotta use that” language, phrases so compelling the reporter thinks to herself, “I couldn’t say that better myself.” Here are some “dos” and “don’ts” for creating compelling answers.

Answer in Complete Sentences.
Include the Sense of the Question in Your Answer.
Be Specific

Repeat Negatives in a Question
Introduce Negatives
Use Toxic Words

The Dos:
Answer in Complete Sentences. You learned this one back in grammar school; the teachers always admonished you to answer question in complete sentences.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it makes your answer self-contained.  If you deliver a sentence fragment in response to a question, the journalist is unlikely to use the answer.

Include the Sense of the Question in Your answer.
“How’s the weather today?”
“It’s cloudy and cold.”
If you find yourself beginning to answer a reporter’s question with “it’s” or “because,”  you are having a conversation, not doing an interview.  “It’s cloudy and cold” is a conversational answer.  Because complete sentence answers incorporating the sense of the question are easier to use journalist are more likely to use them.

Brand. Ever hear someone on radio refer to “the book,” “my book” and “it.”  Well, go to or Barnes & Noble and try to buy “the book,” “my book” or a book called “it.”  Can’t be done.  My motto: “If it’s got a name, use it.”   “We?”  Banish it.  Use the company or organization name.  “It?”  Banish it.  Tell us what it is.

Be Specific. The media love specifics.  “A lot of money” can mean hundreds of dollars to some people, thousands to others and millions to still others.  If you use the actual, specific number, you’ll be more likely to be quoted and understood.
Now let’s examine the Don’ts:

Never Repeat Negatives in a Question. I know, I just told you to incorporate the sense of a question in your answer.  This is the exception to that rule.  Avoid repeating negative words, even when you’re refuting them:
Q: Isn’t this just a disaster waiting to happen?
A: No, it’s not a disaster waiting to happen....
The reporter can drop the question, use your answer and it looks like you are haunted by the possibility that this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Don’t Introduce Negatives. During a Watergate-era news conference President Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook.”  No one had asked him if we was a crook.  He brought up the negative on his own; a media misstep of historic proportions..

Avoid Toxic Words. Often we use a toxic word when more benign words with less baggage will do.  Bailout vs. rescue.  One is negative, the other hopeful.  Cost vs. investment.  One implies a return, the other does not.  In the abortion debate, both sides avoid the negative prefix “anti-.”  Abortion opponents don’t call themselves anti-abortion, but pro-life.  Abortion rights supporters call themselves pro-choice.

In interviews, we sometimes use everyday words that contain hint of toxicity.  The word “stuff” diminishes whatever it is your are characterizing even if you precede it with the word “good.”  “As a result of research done for the space program, society has gotten a lot of really good stuff.”  (Remember the mandate to be specific.  Instead of good stuff, tell us what it is, without using “stuff.”)

I suggest banning from all your media interviews the words “try,” “ trying,” “ hope” and “hopefully.”  They are weak words.  “We’re trying to create a new power source.”  No.  “We’re plan to create a new power source.”  is far stronger.  “We hope we can reach our goals.”  No.  “We intend to reach our goals.”  “Hopefully, we will reach our goals.”  Hopefully?  It’s the weakest word in the English language.  The only purpose it serves in a sentence is to diminish all the other words.

But, wait, you say, didn’t the nation elect a president who ran on a campaign of hope?  Yes, but it was hope as a noun, not as a verb.  His book was not “The Audacity of Hoping,” it was “The Audacity of Hope.”  His campaign motto was not, “Yes We’re Trying,” but “Yes We Can.”  Small changes in the choice of words yielded much more powerful slogans.

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