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The Fundamentals of Media Mastery — I.

BY IN BLOG On 19-03-2009

 

[This series of postings will give newcomers to the challenge of media mastery the basics and give alumni of our media training sessions a quick refresher.]

Anyone equipped with an agenda can turn most media encounters to his or her advantage.  The key word in the last sentence is “agenda.”  An agenda is the America Express card of interviews: don’t leave home without one.   If you go into an interview without an agenda, you’ll come out of it wishing the reporter had asked you this question or that question, that he or she had covered this point or that point.  Armed an agenda, you’ll suffer no such post-interview remorse. An agenda changes an interview from a challenge into an opportunity.

In another post I’ll cover how to create an interview agenda and how to make it media-friendly.  But for now let me cover the most basic elements of mass media communications.  These rules are so fundamental that I have the temerity to call them commandments. There are only five — my temerity has limits.  I’ll list them and then explain each one.

 The Five Commandments of Interviews

I. Thou Shalt Be Prepared

II. Thou Shalt Know thy Listener

III. Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy

IV. Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice

V. Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop an Attitude

 While these rules may appear self-explanatory, it’s worth putting a little flesh and muscle on their bones:

 Thou Shalt Be Prepared.   You can’t get a message out if you don’t have a message to deliver; you need an agenda.  How large an agenda?   I recommend no more than four or five message points plus a URL where people can get more information.  If you go into a media interview with more agenda points, you’re setting yourself up for frustration; you’re unlikely to deploy all of them and, even if you do, the reporter’s not going to use all of them.

Thou Shalt Know to Thy Listener.  You are not speaking to the reporter.  You are speaking THROUGH the reporter to his or her readers, viewers or listeners.  This is especially important if you are dealing with a reporter who is a specialist in your field.  He may ask very sophisticated questions which you may answer at a matching level of sophistication.  Back in his office, he will decide that while he gets what you’ve said his readers won’t. This will lead him to paraphrase you, diluting the impact of your agenda.  And that brings us to our third commandment:

Thou Shalt Be Quoteworthy.  Reporters categorize answers in one of three pigeonholes: “Can’t use that,” “Could use that,” and “Gotta use that!”  You want to get your agenda points phrased in “gotta use that language.”    Reporters would much rather use your words than paraphrase you, but you need to give them the raw material — the pull quotes or soundbites. In another post, I’ll detail how to turn message points into soundbites.

Thou Shalt Practice, Practice, Practice.  “Fella comes up to me and asks, ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’  I answer, ‘Practice, practice, practice.’”  That joke by the late Henny Youngman inspired this commandment.  The most important part of my media training workshops are the practice interviews. It’s critical that you get comfortable deploying your agenda out loud and in answer to questions.  The best way to do that is to have someone throw questions at you so it becomes second nature to reply using your agenda. I recommend recording every practice sessions and critiquing your performance.  Then do it again.  And again.  I.e.: Practice, practice, practice. In another post I’ll give details about the best way to practice for an interview.

Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Cop and Attitude.  If you tell a reporter a lie and he learns the truth THAT becomes the story.  Also, lies destroy your credibility.  If you don’t know an answer, don’t get evasive.  “I don’t know, I’ll find out for you,” is much better than any kind of evasive tactic.  Speculation is dangerous because you could be wrong, the reporter can leave out the speculative nuance of your remarks and you look like you’ve made a mistake.  Finally, on copping an attitude, the media loves knocking people off high horses.  If you don’t get up in that saddle in the first place, they can’t do it. (Non English-speaking clients have sometimes asked what the idiom “cop and attitude” means.  According to Webster’s online dictionary, it means adopting a negative response.  When media training groups with large numbers of non-native English speakers I use a slightly more ungainly last commandment: Thou Shalt Not Lie, Evade, Speculate nor Adopt a Dismissive Attitude.  That doesn’t really do justice to the various nuances of the idiomatic expression, but it will have to do.)

 


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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.

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