By Gerard Braud
The doctor’s resume was impressive. It demonstrated a successful practice, plus a history of research and teaching. The ABC News program 20/20 wanted to do a story about the doctor’s research. The teaching hospital selected me to be the media trainer.
After the best research possible, to prepare, I called the public relations department at the doctor’s hospital.
“What exactly does this person do?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” said the public relations director. “That’s why we hired you.”
“Hum? This is going to be a challenge,” I thought.
The media training class began as normal, with the doctor being recorded on camera for a baseline interview, to evaluate the spokesperson’s natural strengths and weaknesses. The baseline interview is usually followed by a critique and suggestions for good key messages that will help guide the interview.
There was just one problem. After the baseline interview, I still had no idea what the doctor was saying. No matter how I tried to get the doctor to simplify the information, we were getting nowhere, until the fourth hour.
Yes, it was four hours into the day when I sketched out a simple diagram with a cause and effect explanation. I presented it to the doctor and asked, “Is this what you do?”
“That’s perfect,” The doctor responded.
“Then why didn’t you say that four hours ago?” I asked.
“Well what would my peers think?” the doctor replied. “I don’t want to dumb it down.”
“The goal of this interview is to put butts in your waiting room and money in your pocket,” I replied. “We’re not here to impress your peers. We’re here to talk to potential patients.”
Many medical professionals fall into this same trap. They are afraid to “dumb it down.” The truth is, you don’t need to dumb it down, but you need to simplify it.
With that said, let us examine three great rules for more effective media interviews.
Rule #1: Don’t talk to the media, but rather talk to the media’s audience.
Spokespeople mistakenly put reporters on a pedestal. The reality is, most reporters are generalists who know a little about a lot and can make an audience think they are smarter than they really are. Don’t try to talk at a high level. Besides, the reporter isn’t your audience.
Your audience is made up of the people at home. Research tells us the average person watching television has a 6th grade education and the average person reading a newspaper or other written source has an 8th grade reading level.
This means that anything you say must be said at a 6th grade level if you want to be a great communicator. You don’t win prizes for using big words. Additionally, never give too many details.
Many spokespeople shun this advice, saying they don’t want to “dumb down” their information. The best mindset you can adopt is the same one learned through diversity training, which is to respect all people and to be inclusive of all audiences.
Also remember, when you use big words and technical terms, often the reporter has no idea what you are saying. Which leads us to the second rule, based on how little most interviewers know about your topic.
Rule #2: You should always know the first words that will come out of your mouth.
The goal is for you to know two great sentences that instantly adds context to your interview and simultaneously states a great quote.
The two most often heard complaints by spokespeople after interviews is that they were taken out of context and their best stuff was left on the cutting room floor. That will never be the case when you follow this rule. These first two sentences become a verbal headline.
Many spokespeople reject this rule. First, they don’t believe you can know what to say without knowing the question they will be asked. Secondly, they don’t want to sound scripted or rehearsed.
Here is a confession from my 15 years as a journalist, combined with a revelation from 20 years as a coach to spokespeople. Think back to your last media interview. While you were talking, were you partially wondering what the next question would be? Confession: when I was a reporter and my guest was blabbing, I was wondering what my next question would be, because their answer was rambling, full of jargon, too detailed, or lacking quotes.
The revelation is that both the reporter and guest are wondering what their next question is and no one is concentrating on the current answer. This creates an amazing opportunity. Your pre-planned answer will provide context to all you believe about your subject, it will be quotable, it alleviates the jitters about not knowing what to say, and it becomes a preamble to eventually answering the question you were specifically asked.
Furthermore, when written for the mouth and ear, and used in daily conversation following your media training, your pre-planned sentences become internalized and never sounds rehearsed. In fact, you will sound spontaneous and natural.
Rule #3: Talk about the benefit you bring to your patients and not the scientific details. Focus on what’s in it for them and work to manage their expectations.
If you think details are important, do a quick self-examination. When you read the newspaper, do you read every story? No. Of the stories you read, how often do your read until the end? Often you don’t. Chances are you read the headline and the first few paragraphs.
So, if you are not interested in everyone else’s details, what makes you think people want to know your details?
Finally, remember that media training is designed to let you mess up in private so you’ll be great when the real interview happens. In a career where perfection is expected, it takes humility to subject yourself to training. But the most effective communicators train at least once a year and before every interview.
About the author: Gerard Braud is the author of Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter. He is a media training expert who helps spokespeople communicate more effectively. Braud has appeared on TV more than 5,000 times and been quoted in more than 500 publications around the world.