Handling the Mediaby Jennifer Stenhouse
A – Z of quick tips and media jargon
Avoid ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers and remember to work your message into every answer you give.
What you wear is important, but your overall demeanour is key to what you communicate. Your non-verbal communication is, therefore, very important, although the words you use are also crucial.
When asking for something (empathy, help or information), adopt the approachable non-verbal pattern when talking – bobbing head, palms up and rhythmic voice pattern that curls up at the end. When listening, lean forward, smile where appropriate and bob head or nod.
Media jargon for a pre-recorded interview that’s recorded as if it’s live.
Know your audience, find out what they want to hear and what they will understand.
Always be just you and speak from the heart. The media loves real people.
Dark colours, such as charcoal grey, chocolate brown and navy blue, help lend an air of authority (see also credibility). Light colours can add to a lightweight air.
Balance – content
You will usually be asked for your view, your experience or your advice in an interview. Give it honestly, without making personal slurs. It’s the journalist’s job to ensure overall balance in an item.
When standing, hold weight evenly on both feet. Avoid swivel chairs. Sit well back in the chair, leaning slightly forward, with both feet on the ground.
Keep it short and simple.
For poise, improved performance and credibility, practise breathing deeply and talking on the out breath.
This is an interview technique beloved of politicians. It’s a way of dodging a question and redirecting the flow of the interview – perhaps because you’re unsure how to answer or you weren’t expecting it.
For it to work successfully, you MUST answer, or at least acknowledge, the question initially. Then move on with bridging phrases, such as ‘but what I find fascinating is...’ or ‘but to return to what I was saying earlier...’ followed by your key message.
When the camera’s rolling, always look at the interviewer when you’re face to face. In general, you should only address the camera directly when you’re in a different location to the interviewer or main studio – in other words, down the line.
Avoid swivel chairs – it’s just too hard to resist moving around in them. Make sure you’re comfortable in the chair and sit well back in it with your back straight and your feet both firmly anchored on the ground.
It’s a method by which a virtual background is inserted behind the protagonists in a studio. It only affects interviewees if they haven’t been warned and turn up wearing the same blue or green colour as the background. You can see straight through the green or blue bits – but that’s the producer’s responsibility. Also called ‘blue screen’.
Say what you mean and mean what you say in a brief, simple way.
They don’t have to be expensive. It’s more important that they fit you well and are comfortable. What you wear depends on the image you want to convey. For women, tailored jackets and longer skirts and trousers can be a safe bet, but be aware of context and location.
Avoid black, and also white, on TV. Bright reds and pinks can bleed on screen. Beware of bright greens and blues if you will be in a remote studio against a blue or green backdrop (chroma key). Small patterns, such as herringbone, can strobe on screen and be distracting. In general, plain colours work best.
Preparation and breathing are the keys.
Want people to pay attention and believe what you say? Breathe deeply, keep your head still, use a flat tone of voice that curls down at the end and gesture with palms down. Particularly used when delivering hard information or difficult content, this style is another element of charisma. See also standing and sitting.
Always check the deadline. Remember, the reporter’s deadline is different to the on-air or print deadline. Always make an effort to accommodate the needs of the journalist.
Discussion (or disco)
Usually a studio event, live or pre-recorded, where two or more experts discuss an issue, moderated by the interviewer or host.
Audio or video interview, live or pre-recorded, where the expert is in a separate location to the interviewer. Always check whether you are going to be in vision. This is the only time you’ll be expected to deliver what you have to say straight into the camera.
Normal levels of energy do not apply on TV or radio. You need to give it 150 per cent – at least! Energy is also a key to charismatic communication in general. Tap into your internal energy resource and let it radiate out. (See Personal Energy.)
Put yourself in the journalist’s shoes. Understand their pressures and needs. Do the same for people on the ‘other side’ of an argument. Ask yourself what the audience wants and how you might deliver that.
Unless you are in a studio, where it’s the crew’s responsibility, check that there are no distractions that are likely to come into shot. Make sure your office is reasonably tidy, choose somewhere quiet, turn off the phone and make sure no-one will barge in.
Facts and figures
Make them relevant and use them sparingly. Use examples like ‘as high as a double-decker bus’ or ‘as much as it would cost to feed a family of four for a month’. Also avoid percentages, except 100 per cent, 99 per cent, one per cent or zero per cent.
Remember, you’re the expert. Preparation, proper breathing and practice will see you through.
Friend or foe?
It’s beneficial to regard the journalist as neither friend nor foe. The journalist offers the means through which you can effectively promote your message.
This is very important. Stay focused at all times when dealing with the media. You know what you want to get out of the encounter, so make that your focal point and stay alert so that you can respond appropriately, bringing the interview back to your own focus if necessary.
Giving information off the record or in confidence is a risky business and rarely effective, as journalists exist to tell stories and can rarely be gagged!
Beware – they can come back to haunt you. Be specific and avoid misinterpretation and misrepresentation.
Always check your hair before appearing on camera. Carry a mirror.
What to do with them – normal gestures and movements are fine. Avoid pointing at people and windmill-like gestures. Keep your hands away from your face and keep them still when you are not talking (see approachability and credibility).
It really is the best policy. If you don’t have the answer, say so and promise to find out.
Refrain from heckling in a studio discussion. It’s the journalist/moderator’s job to run things and heckling gives a poor impression. It also ruins the producer’s chances of extracting a sound bite for later use, and lowers your stock as a reliable pundit.
Consider what image you want to convey, and dress/behave accordingly. What does a person with that image do? How do they feel, what do they see, hear? Remember, congruity is important. Smart suits don’t look right in muddy fields. See also colour and authority.
Allow your imagination to help you create the word pictures that will strengthen the way you communicate.
People will form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of seeing you. First impressions are important, especially in the media world where you might have 20 seconds max to make an impact.
The more charismatic you are and the more passion and energy you radiate, the more you will influence.
The main event – look on it as your opportunity to get your key message across. And prepare!
Steer clear of jargon, unless you’re communicating with an all-peer group, which is rare in the media.
Keep it simple so that it doesn’t distract from what you’re saying. Your message is the important thing, and you want it to be heard.
Steer clear – they’re very subjective and hard to gauge for a wide audience. Remember Gerald Ratner, who lost his fortune thanks to a badly-placed joke about his product being rubbish.
The laws of karma will get you every time, and sometimes it’s instant! If you’re aggressive in an interview, expect aggression back. The power of influence can be more effective than the influence of power.
Your key message is just that – key. Distil your main point to 15 words or fewer. The more clear and simple the message, the easier it is to remember – for you and the audience!
In general, you will be the person who has the knowledge. Never assume anyone else knows anything.
Concentration, breathing and preparation are the by-words. Always check if an interview’s live. There’s no room for reruns there.
Use the active tense (for example: ‘We need...’, rather than ‘What’s required is...’) as well as appropriate, positive and simple language. Explain acronyms – never assume people know what they stand for.
Pay attention and listen to who’s talking when you’re not. Watch their non-verbal signals and their body language, when you’re talking. You’ll pick up a lot, including helpful clues as to how you’re doing.
Always say: ‘Yes, please!’ to an offer of make-up at a TV studio. Regular TV pundits carry their own powder compact for emergencies.
Always know what your message is before you engage with the media. If you’re not clear on your verbal communication, your non-verbal messages will be confused. What is your main, or key message – in 15 words or fewer? In addition, prepare three or so sub-messages, also around 15 words. Work them all into every answer.
Always carry one – just in case you turn up at an unmanned remote studio somewhere for an unplanned interview.
Turn if OFF! Always.
Avoid, as in ‘The thing is, Jeremy...’ during an interview. You could be shooting yourself in the foot and ruining an otherwise excellent sound bite for use later in the day.
Transform the negative. Accentuate the positive. Never allow a negative to pass your lips, no matter what is said.
Learn to distinguish between adrenalin – which can be useful during your performance – and anxiety as to whether you’re inadequately prepared.
News – what is it?
Short answer: stories about people and the things or events that affect them.
Why lose the chance to promote you or your organisation in a positive light and dispel negativity? ‘No comment’ merely feeds the negative.
Up to 93 per cent of our communication is non-verbal. Remember, energy and state of mind are just as important as behaviour and clothes.
Off the record
Avoid speaking to a journalist off the record. There’s no code in place which forces a journalist to honour the agreement, and to some it might mean they can use the quote, but not name the source. There’s also a danger here that something they write will identify you as the source, which might not be in your interests!
Keep abreast of what else is in the news – especially something that’s in your field of expertise or knowledge. You could be asked to comment in a ‘throwaway’ question during an interview.
And on guard. Stay alert when on air. You might not be aware exactly when the camera is on you – as far as you’re concerned, it always is. Also mind what you say until you’ve left the studio. Remember the lesson John Major learned at ITN...
It’s all in the preparation – the most important thing of all. You can only perform well if you have the content of what you want to say off pat. If you’re not prepared, and have no way of being prepared, find someone who is. If you’re not the appropriate person to do the interview, find the person who is.
Media jargon term for an audio or video news report. These vary in length, depending on the programme or bulletin. If you know the length of the bulletin, you’ll get an idea of the length of the package and how long your window of opportunity, or sound bite, is likely to be. Count on it being pretty short...
An industry term for an interview or show that’s recorded ahead of time.
All the laws of communication apply. Be aware of the pros and cons of the medium. Your words are being ‘reported’. They have to go through the journalist’s filter. Clarity is an absolute must.
It could be for a print story or could be recorded for radio or TV. Check first!
A great opportunity, as you’ll be answering viewers’ or callers’ questions throughout a programme, which might last 30 minutes or more, so there’s more chance to get your message across. Remember to stay properly focused until you’re off air.
Accentuate the positive and active – for example, what you are actively doing in a certain area to help a situation, or what is your positive vision? Tell people what you do/think/feel, rather than what you don’t.
Ask all yours BEFORE the interview as part of your preparation. A journalist isn’t duty bound to give you their questions in advance, but the wise interviewee makes sure they know exactly what they’re getting into.
Want to pick a fight? It’s unlikely you’ll come out of it well. Avoid quarrelling with journalists.
The best way to avoid being misquoted and misrepresented is to be clear and concise in your communication. Clarity leaves little no room for doubt.
All the tips for TV apply. Even though we can’t see you, your body will still influence your voice, which is amplified on radio. Avoid taking notes into the studio – they can rustle and be heard on air, which is distracting.
Check who else is in a discussion and be aware of possibilities. Keep abreast of other news.
If a question has a built-in premise with which you do not agree, then you must rebut it. For example, Interviewer: ‘You ignored everyone’s advice and just barged on ahead, didn’t you?’ Interviewee: ‘We considered all points of view before eventually coming to the conclusion that in the long run the scheme would benefit the community.’
If your interview is being recorded, make sure you know what it’s being used for. Are they looking for a sound bite for a package, for instance? On the plus side, if you fluff an answer, it’s likely you’ll be able to go again.
This is often less a studio, more an unmanned broom cupboard in a different location to the main studio, where all the action is. You will find yourself hearing the audio from the studio, but you won’t see anything other than the camera in front of you. To make this work, practise engaging with the camera as if it were a real person.
You do not have a right of veto over what goes into a to a news item, so make sure you know the ground well. Prepare. You do have the right of reply, and the right to complain to the relevant authorities.
Avoid swivel chairs. Sit well back in the seat, with back straight, for authority, slightly leaning forward, feet planted firmly on the floor. Avoid forming a cathedral structure over your groin with your hands. If sitting at a desk, you may rest your forearms on the desk.
This is effectively an audio quote – with vision on TV. Sound bites are often around ten seconds (30 words) long in short news bulletin items. They may be longer on programmes with more time, but even shorter on quick-fire updates.
For authority and credibility, stand still, with your weight evenly distributed on both feet, which should be hip-width apart. Keep a straight back and your forearms horizontal to the ground, by your side or a combination of both.
You can manage the state of your mind and body. The ideal state is one of relaxed confidence. Preparation is a key, as is appropriate breathing and posture.
A studio can be a cavernous space or a shoebox. Neither is particularly glamorous. In a large studio, there will be someone there to tell you what to do and look after you. On the other hand, you might be on your own in the shoebox, so be prepared and find out what you’re getting into!
To you it seems the most noticeable thing in the world, but remember how the media distorts. No-one else has probably noticed. Just carry on as if nothing has happened. Keep your cool and no-one WILL notice!
The ultimate! Large, broad audiences are the Holy Grail, and you want to look and sound your best to reach them all. Despite recent advances, the technology can put much more pressure on TV journalists than their counterparts in other media. Be understanding!
If you have some understanding of the technology, you’ll understand better what’s required of you. Technology tends to dictate deadlines. If in doubt, ask.
This is always at a premium in the media, which is ruled by deadlines and running times. Make sure you know what the time constraints are. They’ll be different every time, and vary with each medium.
Relax about using ums and errs – they’re absolutely natural. We all fall back on them sometimes. In fact, if we avoided them completely we would sound inauthentic.
Always expect the unexpected, and pre-empt it whenever possible. It’s all part of your preparation.
The ideal media spokesperson is always available... at any time of day.
The ideal media spokesperson is always interesting. No one makes it to air or to print if they’re otherwise.
The words you use are hugely important. Different words trigger different responses in different people. In media communication, we suggest taking the simple route to avoid potential pitfalls. We respond more favourably to positive language, and our brains take in active information more readily. Resist putting images into people’s minds that you really don’t want them to have. Steer clear of the negatives!
Before any media event, visualise how it can go, and go well. This will help you handle the event with ease. Relax, breathe deeply and close your eyes. Imagine the scene on a TV screen in your mind. Imagine the interviewer with yourself as the perfect interviewee and step into the shoes of ‘you’ as that perfect interviewee. Take yourself through the interview to the end, seeing what you see, hearing what you hear and feeling what you feel. Be specific here and let yourself bask in the knowledge that you can perform brilliantly with the right preparation. When you’ve finished, open your eyes in the knowledge that you can do very well indeed.
Project your voice. Talk from the diaphragm, on the out breath. Speak slowly – much more slowly than you’re used to – and pause regularly. Men rarely have a problem with timbre. Women can practise lowering their voice while going through their breathing exercises.
An alternative name for package in TV.
The camera adds about 10lbs to most people. If you see someone on TV who looks stick thin, they really are... See also authority.
Less than 10 per cent of your communication is carried in your words, but if they aren’t appropriate, the whole game can be lost. Choose your words carefully. Think about them ahead of time and make sure they truly reflect what you want to say and are appropriate for the audience.
Words put in your mouth
Beware – if a journalist says: ‘Don’t you think that this is the worst thing that could have happened?’ and you say ‘yes’; it will be reported as though you actually said it yourself. If that’s not what you want to say, give your actual view in response.
Make your interviews interesting by creating pictures with your words. Tell stories and use metaphor, making your answers relevant to the audience.
The web favours bite-sized chunks of information, so follow the normal rules of communication and you won’t go far wrong. Just be aware that this is still a world of few regulations.
Leave this content to the movies...
Leave them out where possible. Always give a full answer, especially on TV and radio; the answer should include your message, but leave out the interviewer’s question and any negatives.
Say what you have to say and then be quiet. You’re not responsible for any silences. When you talk to fill a silence there’s a danger you’ll say something unintended.
One of the few numbers that people readily relate to. Beware of figures and percentages, as many people do not relate to them. Make them relevant with examples that allow people to understand what their significance is.
With practice, preparation and patience, you’ll start to approach each media encounter like an athlete in the zone.