The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 6

By George Merlis Monday, June 22, 2009

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. Last week 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.  Today, 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 this question 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.  (And I don’t mean the 16-year-old whose science project was a solar-powered robot, but the 16-year-old who plays Game Boy for hours on end.)  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 it’s 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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