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Two Grabbers for Every Agenda Point

BY IN BLOG On 11-02-2015

By George Merlis

A number of clients have asked me if I would write a blog on the Brian Williams Choppergate scandal. Well, I have. It was for another outlet, Zocalo Public Square and it was posted before his six month unpaid suspension was announced.  If you’re interested, there’s a second link to that column is at the end of this post.

Instead of using this space to deal with Brian Williams, the anchor star system and fabulist news readers, I want instead to address a very useful suggestion that came up in a recent media training workshop.  Those of you who’ve been through the training know that the first step toward interview success is to formulate an agenda for the interview.  And the next step is to make the agenda points compelling by using grabbers — verbal devices that make an answer come alive.  A grabber can be a word picture, a simile or metaphor, an ST word (first, last, biggest, best, etc.) or a startling fact or statistic. In workshops, after participants have come up with agenda points and a grabber for each point, we review and critique them and then we do practice interviews.

A couple of weeks ago, a client asked, “Wouldn’t it be good to have two grabbers for every agenda point?”

BulbYou know the light bulb that goes off over a comic strip character’s head when he gets or hears a good   idea?  Well, that’s figuratively what happened to me.  Two grabbers for every agenda point!  Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Why have two grabbers?  Well, if you get an agenda point deployed early in an interview,  you may be reluctant to revisit it later on because you don’t want to sound overly programmed and you’re reluctant to repeat yourself.  But if you have two grabbers for each agenda point, the revisitation will sound as fresh as the first iteration.  Moreover, if a reporter was unmoved by the first grabber, she may find the second one more enticing.

When I was a print reporter and later on as a television news producer, I would put every answer into one of three pigeonholes:  Can’t Use That, Could Use That, or Gotta Use That                                                                                                                                                                      

Most reporters categorize answers that way, even if they do it unconsciously. Often, the difference between a Could Use that and a Gotta Use that answer is a compelling grabber.  Having two of grabbers for each point gives you a second shot at scoring a Gotta Use That answer.

The two-grabber tactic will be especially effective in telephone interviews. As alumni of the workshops know, a phone interview is like an open book test.  You can have your agenda points and grabbers right in front of you and the reporter is none the wiser.  With that an open book test it’s pretty easy to get your three or four agenda points into the interview by the time the reporter asks her fourth or fifth question.  Now what?  Many interviewees breathe a big sigh, close the open book and just answer questions.  The danger with that scenario, of course, is that the finished story may be about what you discussed after deploying your agenda.  But if you have second grabbers for each point, and you’re determined to work those into the interview as well, you’re more likely to stay on message throughout the interview.

For phoners I recommend writing each agenda point on a separate index card.  Add the grabber to the card.  After you work the agenda point and grabber into the interview, turn the card over — that will guide you to your next agenda point.  Now if you’ve got two grabbers, prepare two index cards for each agenda point, writing a different grabber on each of the two cards. I recommend using two different color cards, say blue and green.  Make the blue cards the first set — one card for each agenda point, one grabber for each card.  Make the green the second set.  Discipline yourself to work your way through all your blue cards (i.e. work in all your agenda points) before turning to the green cards.

If you have four agenda points, by the end of nine or ten questions you ought to be looking at the backs of eight cards.  You will have deployed your agenda twice in short order in compelling (and different) words.  If the interview is going to continue, turn the cards back over and revisit the agenda points yet again.  Try the dual grabber tactic next time you do a phone interview; you’ll find it effective.

Here’s the link to that Brian Williams column.



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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.