Media Training: Survive the interview

Can media training courses teach you how to handle interviews across all media? Suzy Bashford finds out.

Journalists are becoming increasingly exasperated with interviewees who sound like corporate robots. In a backlash against spin, hand in hand with an explosion of media opportunities, the ability to cope with media interviews across the board becomes ever more essential.

In an ideal world, where company spokespeople would have more time and budget, they would attend three separate courses on preparing for press interviews for TV, radio and print media. In practice, that's not possible.

It helps that there is a lot of common ground between the media; there are more similarities than differences between them. Experts agree that a day's training is therefore enough to adequately cover all three disciplines to a competent level.

Most courses start by looking at print media in the morning, when many of the general issues are addressed, before moving on to TV and radio in the afternoon, where attention focuses on the non-verbal modes of communication.

'The basics are the same: you need to know your subject; you need to humanise the story, talk in soundbites and you need to prepare,' says National Savings & Investments media and PR manager Wendy Franklin, who looks after training.

She adds that considering the simple questions, such as your organisation's telephone number or website, is a crucial, but often neglected, aspect of preparation because the interviewee often concentrates on the 'big' issues.

Preparing for the moment

You can learn what to do - and what not to do - in media interviews from watching politicians - George Bush is a classic example. At a recent press conference, he was asked to reveal the biggest learning point he had had in the aftermath of 9/11.

Media Training Masterclasses chief executive Warwick Partington claims that while this is theoretically an easy question, Bush's stumbling and long pauses showed that he hadn't thought about the simple, personal question.

Bush's answer eventually went on to include Iraq. 'He clearly panicked, and what came into his head was the biggest negative thought he could have had. This proves that when you train interviewees to think "I mustn't mention the negatives", they can still be the first things that come into the mind when on the spot and under pressure,' Partington explains.

Confidence will help any interviewee come across effectively. Yet media training needs to steer away from scaremongering and breeding fear of press interviews, which could turn some course delegates into quivering wrecks.

It is unlikely that PROs and clients are going to come up against a really difficult interview. The most common mode of interview is telephone, mainly because of editorial cutbacks. And, with a burgeoning, fragmenting media, more people than ever are being approached for press interviews. There are more opportunities to be interviewed because so many journalists want tailored statistics.

Fierce competition for exclusive information means reporters may veer towards a more sensationalist angle where possible in an attempt to grab attention on the newsstands or the airwaves. 'Interviewees are frequently asked to speculate, but they must be very careful about this. They'll be invited to increase emotional intensity but shouldn't allow any state-ment said by the journalist to remain unchallenged or uncorrected if they disagree with it, or no doubt that will be the headline the next day,' advises Quadrant Media Training director Mike Slater.

Understanding the media

Then there are those who take the need to make their message clear too far. If interviewees get their point across to the exclusion of everything else, journalists may well become heartily fed up and won't go back to them.

Refusing to comment is also sure to frustrate the media. When James Gryce joined Hewlett-Packard two years ago as supply sales director, the stock answer to any media enquiry was 'no comment', which led to a flurry of inaccurate stories.

Gryce and his team subsequently underwent a media training day covering TV, radio and print. 'It taught me that you need to understand the different media, but two things are crucial in all: thinking about your audience and cutting the jargon,' he says. 'It was an onerous day but absolutely worth the money, without a shadow of a doubt. I feel more confident and I've seen the difference straight away.'

While one day like this won't mean delegates will necessarily cruise through a Jeremy Paxman interrogation, it's a good start.

Arming interviewees with a few tricks of the trade can build their confidence, which is the biggest hurdle in helping them come across effectively in press interviews, regardless of whether their words are destined for TV, radio or print.

RADIO TIPS

- Find out as much as possible about the programme before you do your interview. For news, focus on soundbites without worrying about repetition.

For features, be careful of repetition

- Don't by-pass presenters by talking beyond them as if to a third party

- address them; they are the gateway to the audience

- It helps to practise in a real studio environment so you can to get to grips with how the technology works. Many media trainers will own or rent facilities for courses

- Do not turn away from the microphone, even if this means turning away from the presenter or other interviewees, or you will sound muffled and distant

- Always try and do an interview in the studio, rather than down the phone, if you have a choice - you're more likely to be involved and easier to understand

- If you are doing a radio interview by phone, try standing up; it will make you feel more in control and confident

- Don't read from notes - if it makes you feel more confident, scribble key points on a card

- Don't expect interviewers to look at you all the time because they'll be too busy

- Convey energy, enthusiasm and passion in your voice. Your voice has got to catch the audience's attention

- Pauses can be a good way to emphasise a point as long as they aren't too long

TV TIPS

- Check your appearance; brush your hair and check for dandruff

- Don't look too slick - audiences respond to someone they can relate to

- Beware of your body language and habits, such as wriggling in your seat, putting your hands in your pockets or gesticulating

- Look the interviewer in the eye

- Check what is behind you so you don't go on air looking like you have a tree or lamp post growing out of your head

- Don't move or talk at the end of the interview until you're told to

- Smile whenever possible, even if you're talking about a serious subject, except when it would be considered insensitive

- TV news tends to use only 20 seconds if it's pre-recorded, so don't worry about repeating yourself and don't be ground down to say something you don't mean to say

- Familiarise yourself with equipment - as in radio, many trainers have access to facilities

- Don't worry about getting nervous for interviews - especially live ones. If you don't, you probably won't perform as well

- Don't be thrown if the interviewer switches from being warm and friendly just before the interview to an aggressive, questioning style on air. Never allow yourself to get riled, even if you feel the interviewer is asking you an unfair question - you will never come off the better

PRINT TIPS

- Exploit the advantage of having time to clarify and explain the subject. Check back on the notes the journalist is making as you go along to ensure you're explaining yourself clearly

- Don't be bullied into answering then and there. Ask print journalists what the article is about and what they need, then say you'll get back to them soon

- Print media has been affected by the commercial realities of falling circulations, so can be more prone than other channels to taking the sensationalist angle in a bid to get picked up from the newsstands

- Only say things that you would be happy to see appear in print, even if you feel the conversation is going well and you are building a good rapport with the journalist

- Print journalists are more likely to be working to an agenda than those in other media. Try and find out what this is during the conversation. You need to structure your discussion around this agenda. What do they want: statistics, an opinion, verification?

- Because of these agendas, print interviews require more preparation than other media. Read articles the journalist has written before to get a sense of their style and the possible angle they might take

- Think visually. Ask yourself what photography you can supply to support your comments

- At the close of the interview, ask what else the writer is working on with a view to building up a relationship.

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