Magazine article Communication World

How to Shine in the Media Spotlight: A Former Reporter Reveals the Secrets of Successful Spokespeople

Magazine article Communication World

How to Shine in the Media Spotlight: A Former Reporter Reveals the Secrets of Successful Spokespeople

Article excerpt

You've probably seen them on television--interviewees who always seem to deliver a quick quip, an interesting anecdote or an important fact that makes you stop and take notice. They seem natural, conversational, energetic and unrehearsed. They engage you as soon as they speak. Others simply ignore the reporter's question and, like any good driver, take quick control of the wheel, heading off in their own direction. What is it they have in common? Chances are, these savvy spokespeople have benefited from good media training.

Not long ago, a colleague complained that in today's media-charged environment, it's hard to find an executive who hasn't been coached by a media trainer. And in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article, well-known journalists grumbled that as a growing number of media trainers teach spokespeople to twist interviews, dodge questions and seize control of interviews, the public is suffering.

Strive for verbal fluency

Imagine that! Intelligent spokespeople who don't want to be caught off guard are coming to interviews armed with facts and messages, have practiced delivering those messages, and are learning how to speak clearly and concisely so they can explain complicated information in simple terms. What a concept!

In the early 1990s, Thomas Harrell, professor emeritus of business at Stanford University, studied a group of MBAs a decade after their graduation. His goal was to identify the traits of those who were most successful. The one common trait among the "successfuls" was their verbal fluency. They were confident communicators who could talk to anyone--colleagues, investors, strangers, bosses or associates. They could speak well in front of audiences, and they were easy to talk to. That's why media training--otherwise known as communication coaching--should be mandatory in business.

As a reporter for more than 20 years, I interviewed countless numbers of smart, articulate people who had a lot to say but didn't know how to say it. As a result, they missed great opportunities to get their point across and shine in the spotlight. They were nervous and uncomfortable and, like many of us, feared being misquoted, blindsided by unexpected questions or taken out of context. So, instead of plotting their own path, they simply followed my lead and let me determine their direction. While reporters certainly have their own agendas, until recently, no one had given spokespeople the tools or permission to take control away from them.

While you may never find yourself being interviewed on TV or having to answer tough questions from a reporter from a major newspaper, facing any journalist without preparation is bad news. Interviews shape public perception about you, your company or your product. Think of them as opportunities.

Think like a reporter

Most media training focuses on developing key messages, dodging questions and preparing for responses. Good media training will teach you how to crawl inside a reporter's head so you understand how to get what you need while giving him what he wants. Reporters want you to answer questions, not spout messages. They want you to appear animated, not coached. They want you to talk about your product or service but are turned off if you start promoting. So, how can you bridge the gap and make the most of every interview opportunity?

The key is to think like the reporter. Let's say you're a doctor who is offering advice about how people who suffer from depression can get through the holidays. It is natural for you to want to discuss years of research, data and safety profiles before getting to possible solutions. While that information may be relevant to certain audiences, it is far more compelling to put the facts into perspective by explaining the magnitude of the problem and how it affects your target audience. If people don't understand the problem, they can't appreciate the importance of a solution. …

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