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What you absolutely need to know before doing a media interview

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The problem most people have talking to journalists is not one of delivery, but of content. Unless you are crystal clear about what you want to say to reporters, never do an interview. Even when you’re sure what your main messages are, never do an interview without evidence to back up your key points.

If you want to know what happens when you talk to a journalist unprepared, listen to this car-crash interview with former Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett.

Painful, right?

To avoid this happening to you, always ask: Am I ready to do this interview? Is it in my interests? And am I fully prepared for the questions.

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’ don’t do the interview.

If the answer is ‘yes’ the next thing to do is to prepare your messages. That may sound obvious, but when I asked several high-placed UN officials to prepare their messages for a media training, several asked: “What are messages?”

Messaging 101

Your messages are the key points you want to make. And they should be:

  • Few: Three is the magic number
  • Clear: Know exactly what you want to say and say it as simply as possible
  • Strong: If you’ve got something to say, say it directly
  • Distinctive: What makes your message stand out?
  • Relevant: Why should people care or listen?
  • Sticky: What’s memorable about your message?

If you are not sure what your position is or what your key messages on an issue are, you will get eaten alive by journalists – like Labour’s mayoral candidate for North Tyne Jamie Driscoll last week when asked to explain Labour’s Brexit position.

Where’s the proof?

Once you’ve worked out your key messages, your job is half done. But you still need to be able to back them up. This is where your proof points come in.

Journalists are wary of your agenda and audiences wary of your spin. You can’t just make assertions and expect people to believe them. You have to substantiate with proof points, which are more persuasive than hype or hyperbole.

Proof points are the evidence needed to back up your messages. It can be hard evidence – facts, figures and statistics. Or it can be soft evidence – anecdotes, stories and examples.

If you have no evidence to shore up the claims you’re making, you’ll end up looking as foolish as the former candidate for the Mayor of London Zac Goldsmith. Having expressed his love of all things Bollywood, the journalist asks him a simple and obvious question: “Do you have a favourite Bollywood actor or film?” There is a very awkward silence while Goldsmith attempts to remember one, followed by the arrogant “I’m not going to give you one.”

Zooming in and out

So how do you wriggle out of trouble when you’re put on the spot by journalists?

Honesty is the best policy, of course. In an ideal world, former Green leader Nathalie Bennett should have known the cost of her party’s house-building programme. But as she didn’t, the best reply would have been “I don’t have the exact figure at hand, but what I do know is that Britain’s housing policy is a shambles. What we propose is…”

This technique is called ‘zooming out’ – when you’re asked a specific question, go general. You can also ‘zoom in’ – when asked a general question go specific. So when mayoral candidate Jamie Driscoll was called to explain Labour’s Brexit policy he could have honed in on the effects of Brexit on the people of the north of Tyne rather than flail around looking for the party’s fudged position.

Of course, there’s a danger that this ‘bridging’ technique can sound evasive and annoy both journalists and listeners. So it should only be used when you really want to avoid answering a question or appearing foolish – both of which can be averted by doing your homework beforehand.

This means deciding whether the interview is really in your interest, preparing thoroughly by researching your audience, working out your key messages and backing them up with proof points and then rehearsing with colleagues. Follow these steps and you won’t go viral for all the wrong reasons.

To avoid falling into the pitfalls above, sign up for a media training course with us. Practicing in a safe environment with plenty of constructive feedback is the only way to get better at interviews.

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About Gareth Harding

Gareth is the Managing Director of Clear Europe and head of the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. He is a former journalist, speechwriter and political advisor.

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