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Media Mastery Fundamentals VI — Polishing Your Answers

BY IN BLOG On 10-05-2009

In media training workshops I stress that a major goal of any media encounter is to have the resulting story convey your interview agenda, preferably in your words.  So you want to phrase your major points in compelling, soundbite language: “gotta use that” language.  We want the reporter, upon hearing your answer, to say to herself, “I couldn’t say that better myself.” 

There are some “dos” and “don’ts” for creating compelling answers.

Dos:

Answer in Complete Sentences.

Include the Sense of the Question in Your Answer.

Brand

Be Specific

Don’ts:

Never Repeat Negatives in a Question

Don’t Introduce Negatives

Avoid Toxic Words

Here is a little more detail on the Dos:

Answer in Complete Sentences.  You learned this one back in grammar school; the teachers always admonished you to answer question in complete sentences.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it makes your answer self-contained.  If you deliver a sentence fragment in response to a question, the journalist is unlikely to use the answer; in fact, may be unable to use the answer.

Include the Sense of the Question in Your answer.  I’ll illustrate this one in a basic way:

“How’s the weather today?”

“It’s cloudy and cold.”

If you find yourself beginning to answer a reporter’s question with “it’s” or “because,”  you are having a conversation, not doing an interview.  “It’s cloudy and cold” is a conversational answer.  To use that answer the journalist has to quote her question or write a lead-in that frames the question.  But this answer: “The weather today is cloudy and cold” incorporates the sense of the question and can stand alone.  Because complete sentence answers incorporating the sense of the question are easier to use journalist are more likely to use them.

 Brand.  I’m sure you’ve listened to interviews on radio and heard an author refer to “the book,” “my book” and “it.”  Well, go to amazon.com or Barnes & Noble and try to buy “the book,” “my book” or a book called “it.”  Can’t be done.  Now it’s true that in a print story, you can always skip back a few paragraphs and see what the title of the book was. I call this the reread factor.  But you can’t do that in a broadcast interview.  I recommend getting into the habit of treating all interviews as if they are broadcast interviews so you don’t have to do any mental readjusting when you go from one medium to another.  Also, there’s no guarantee that a reader will take advantage of the reread factor; if you do the branding, there’s no need for him to do it.   “We?”  Banish it.  Use the company or organization name.  “It?”  Banish it.  Tell us what it is.

Be Specific.  The media loves specifics.  I can infer the general from a specific, I can’t infer the specific from the general.  If you’re making a point, a case history, a specific fact, a hard and fast number is always best.  “A lot of money” can mean hundreds of dollars to some people, thousands to others and millions to still others.  If you use the actual, specific number, you’ll be more likely to be quoted and understood.

Here are some details about the Don’ts:

Never Repeat Negatives in a Question. I know, I just told you to incorporate the sense of a question in your answer.  This is the exception to that rule.  Avoid repeating negative words, even when you’re refuting them:

Q: Isn’t this just a disaster waiting to happen?

A: No, it’s not a disaster waiting to happen….

The reporter can drop the question, use your answer and it looks like you are haunted by the possibility that this is a disaster waiting to happen.   How do you answer that question?  “No, not at all.  What the [insert brand name] program is, is a well-planned….”

Don’t Introduce Negatives.  Some may remember the Watergate-era news conference during which President Richard Nixon said, “The people need to know that their President is not a crook.  Well I am not a crook.”  No one had asked him if we was a crook.  He brought up the negative on his own.

Avoid Toxic and Weak Words.  Often we use unnecessarily toxic words when dealing with the media when perfectly more benign words with less baggage will do.  Bailout vs. rescue.  One is negative, the other hopeful.  Cost vs. investment.  One implies a return, the other does not.  In the abortion debate in this country, both sides avoid the prefix “anti-” which has is identified with negatives: anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-integration, etc. Abortion opponents don’t call themselves anti-abortion, but pro-life (implying the other side is anti-life or even pro-death).  The other side has a tougher job labeling itself; it bills itself as pro-choice, rather than pro-abortion or even pro-abortion rights and its billing implies the other side is anti-choice.   We sometimes use everyday words that contain just hints of toxicity.  The word “stuff” diminishes whatever it is your are characterizing even if you precede it with the word “good.”  “As a result of research done for the space program, society has gotten a lot of really good stuff.”  (Remember the mandate to be specific.  Instead of good stuff, tell us what it is, without using “stuff.”)

I recommend never using “try,” “ trying,” “ hope” or “hopefully.”  These are weak words.  “We’re trying to create a new power source.”  No.  “We’re plan to create a new power source.”  That’s much stronger.  “We hope we can reach our goals.”  No.  “We intend to reach our goals.”  “Hopefully, we will reach our goals.”  Hopefully?  It’s the weakest word in the English language.  The only purpose it serves in a sentence is to diminish all the other words.

But, wait, you say.  Didn’t the United States in 2008 elect a president who ran on a campaign of hope?  Yes, it was hope as a noun, not as a verb.  His book was not “The Audacity of Hoping,” it was “The Audacity of Hope.”  His campaign motto was not “Yes We’re Trying,” but “Yes We Can.”  Seemingly small changes in the choice of words yielded much more powerful slogans.   The same sort of care yields powerful soundbites and pull quotes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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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