The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 3

By George Merlis Thursday, April 2, 2009

Crafting Your Agenda

“I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.” -- President Barack Obama in his March 24 prime time news conference.

In my very first posting for the HBS blog, I outlined the five commandments of interviews.  The first of those commandments was “Thou Shalt be Prepared.”  Preparation consists of two elements: having an agenda for the session (i.e. knowing what you’re talking about before speaking) and 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 Goggle News and typing a variety of key words in the search box.  But coming up with an agenda for an interview takes a little more work. Watching President’s Obama’s full news conference on March 24, I made a list of his agenda points; points he returned to several times, even when answering questions about other matters.

In a future posting, I’ll describe how you use a question that’s off your agenda to get back on to your agenda, but for now, let’s deal with creating that interview agenda.

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 them Grabbers.  Today, I’m going to deal only with the agenda points.  Next time I’ll tell you about Grabbers.

Clients always ask how many agenda points they should have for an interview or news conference.  My recommendation is no more than four or five.  If you have seven, nine or eleven agenda points, you’re going to waste a lot of mental energy trying to remember them all and you’re setting yourself up for frustration because you’re unlikely to get all of them in.

Let’s look back at President Obama’s March 24 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.)

Now the president’s actions and agenda have an impact on all of us.  But 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 and next week, I’ll go into detail on grabbers. But here are a couple of examples of grabbers from President Obama’s March 24 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.”

Next week: How to Craft Grabbers.

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