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One of the key things you’ll often hear people talking about when it comes to media interview preparation is the importance of knowing your three key messages.
In fact ‘three key messages’ returns more than 195 million results on Google.
I can clearly remember preparing three key messages on the occasions I have acted as a media spokesperson.
And I also know that I religiously prepared the same number of messages when I briefed others to face the media.
But we tell participants on our media training courses that three is not always the magic number when it comes to media interviews.
In fact, we believe that three messages are far too many and we encourage spokespeople to establish just one key message.
The reason is simple – few people will remember more than one major point a spokesperson makes in a media interview, so you should instead focus on the one thing you want the audience to go away remembering.
Do you want people to be persuaded by a point? Do you want them motivated into taking some form of action? Perhaps you simply want to raise awareness of a product, initiative or campaign?
Once you know the one key thing you want to get across in an interview, it needs to be refined so that it can be spelt out in a single sentence of fewer than 20 words otherwise, again, it is likely to be too complex for people to remember.
So, if you only have one key message to get across, what do you do with the rest of the interview?
I can recall interviews I have carried out where the spokesperson has begun by saying something along the lines of ‘can I start by saying three things’.
The problem with this approach – apart from there being too many messages - is that it usually means the question which has just been asked by the reporter has been totally ignored and it makes the interview sound completely scripted and unnatural. It is likely to irritate the audience and will almost certainly annoy the journalist.
While it is good to try to take control at the start, there are much more subtle ways to ensure your message gets heard.
One way is to repeat your message to ensure that it gets across.
But you need to change the language, otherwise you will bore the journalist and the audience and sound like a corporate speaking robot – think Theresa May and ‘strong and stable’ during the last general election.
Have a few variants of the message that you can bring into the interview. This will help the audience know what you want them to do as a result of hearing or seeing the interview. If the interview is with a print journalist, it will ensure the reporter knows where you think the focus of the article should be.
A key message needs to be supported by examples, otherwise it is little more than rhetoric.
The most powerful examples are those which are personal to the spokesperson and that connect with the audience to take them on a journey.
Personal stories and anecdotes help make the story relevant to the audience, provide a human side to the organisation and help spokespeople grow in confidence.
Statistics and facts also have an important role to play here, especially in the age of fake news and scepticism about what is reported in the media. But use them sparingly and only to illustrate a point.
Spokespeople need to take control of the interview and steer the conversation back to their message.
Bridging is a technique we teach on our media training courses which enables interviewees to briefly acknowledge a question that is not relevant to their key message and then move the conversation on to safer ground, while remaining helpful and cooperative.
A spokesperson could say something like ‘I appreciate there is some interest in that and it is something we want to get to the bottom of. What I can tell you now is…’
Signposting is another media training technique which makes it obvious to the reporter you have something interesting to say if they ask you the right question.
For example, if you finish an answer with ‘but that’s not the most important thing’ or ‘that’s not even the key thing’ the chances are the reporter will ask ‘so what is the most important thing?’. It’s human nature to want to know more when it’s being hinted at.
As well as giving you control and leading the journalist to your key message, it also tells the audience to concentrate as you are about to tell an interesting story.
Loosen the messaging noose
Sometimes spokespeople feel uncomfortable because messaging uses language they may not be comfortable using.
Empowering and encouraging them to use the language they would use (within corporate guidelines) will help bring messages to life and make them memorable.
"Empowering and encouraging spokespeople to use the language they would normally use (within corporate guidelines) will help bring messages to life and make them memorable." http://bit.ly/2zV7nRx via @mediafirstltd
No matter how strong your key message is, if you get drawn into commenting on wider issues that may be brought into the interview, then it may be lost.
For example, at the moment it is quite likely you would face a question about what Brexit will mean for your organisation.
Or more generally, you could be asked something about a wider industry issue or a government proposal.
These questions invite speculation and have the ability to take the focus away from the subject the spokesperson wants to talk about.
The bridging technique we mentioned earlier can be vital here, allowing the spokesperson to briefly respond to the question before steering the conversation back to their key message.
There’s a quote from American statesman Henry Kissinger which I love and I think sums this blog up nicely. He used to start media interviews by asking ‘does anyone have any questions for my answers?’. Now clearly you can’t ignore a journalist’s questions, but you can – and should – be clear of the one key message you want to get across at the start of your interview.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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