Handling the Mediaby Jennifer Stenhouse
Language and audience
Before you send anything to the media or talk to a journalist, consider your audience. Who are they? What do they know? What are their interests? What makes them angry? What are their preconceptions?
Use clear and appropriate language to heighten the chances of getting your point across to your whole audience. If you don’t use appropriate language, your audience might either just not hear you or, worse, a journalist will translate what you have said into language they think the audience will understand. This could put a different emphasis on your message and you may well feel you have been misrepresented.
It happens that people are misquoted in print. Sometimes the journalist is at fault, but often the interviewee has been unclear in their language and the journalist has felt obliged to interpret. That’s when you can hear: ‘That’s not what I said [meant] at all!’
It also happens that people swear blind they didn’t say something, but have to eat their words when they hear them back on tape. They were under the impression that they said one thing and were horrified to see something else reported. This is the case when thought hasn’t matched language, and is another reason for establishing a message and rehearsing it.
Clear language will also help you keep your message clear in your own mind, so that you can deliver it succinctly. George Orwell said we should never use a long word where a short one will do – and that’s doubly true in a media encounter, unless you deem it appropriate for the audience.
Choose understandable language
Bearing in mind your time constraints, remember to steer clear of long-winded phrases, too. Your authority will remain intact, even though you use language everyone understands. Again, avoid specialist jargon unless it’s appropriate for your audience. If you must use jargon, explain it as you go along.
For example, if you want to use the media to get through to teenagers, think of the language they use and match it with your own. Take care to be congruent though – no-one will take you seriously if you look like a history professor spouting gangsta rap!
The Campaign for Plain English has an invaluable guide to help you through the minefield of obfuscation, jargon and gobbledegook (Want to know more?).
If you were talking to a journalist from a science publication, you might use some terms, in the interests of precision, which would go over the heads of the general public. Take care, though, that the interviewer understands what you’re talking about, and can report what you’re saying faithfully. These days there are fewer and fewer specialists and more and more generalists in the media.
You do not lose authority by using simple language which everyone understands. Avoid specialist jargon, unless it’s appropriate for your audience. If you must use jargon, explain it as you go along.
Numbers can be tricky for a lot of people to get a proper handle on. Avoid them where possible. If you have to give figures, make sure they are in context – something costing £200 can be either cheap or expensive, depending whether your total budget is £250 or £2000. Consider using simile and metaphor to explain the meaning of your figures. For example:
- That’s as high as a double-decker bus
- You could feed a child in Africa for a week with the price of a pint of beer
- One in four women has suffered violent assault.
Avoid percentages. A general audience just won’t take them on board in any meaningful way. The exceptions are 100 per cent, 99 per cent, one per cent or zero per cent.
Metaphor and narrative are powerful in story-telling. Draw pictures with your words to make what you say interesting. Tell at least one anecdote that supports your point or give an example to illustrate, literally, your message. Remember to keep the stories succinct. Rehearse them beforehand to make sure they work.
Look for the ingredient in what you want to say that will have people saying: ‘Did you see that story in the paper/on the news?’ No one will talk about a concept. They will talk about something that happened to someone else – or that may happen to them – that they can understand and that sticks in their mind.